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new haven + london 



the social lives of 
networked teens 

danah boyd 

Published with assistance from the foundation established in memory 
of Philip Hamilton McMillan of the class of 1894, Yale College. 

Copyright © 2014 by danah boyd. 
All righrs reserved. 

Subjecr to the exception immediately following, this book may not be 
reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form 
(beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the US 
Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without 
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Designed by Lindsey Voskowsky. 

Set in Avenir LT STD and Adobe Garmond type by IDS Infotech, Ltd. 
Printed in the United States of America. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

boyd, danah (danah michele), 1977— 

It's complicated : the social lives of networked teens / danah boyd. 
pages cm 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 
ISBN 978-0-300-16631-6 (clothbound : alk. paper) 
1. Internet and teenagers. 2. Online social networks. 

3. Teenagers — Social life and customs — 21st century. 

4. Information technology — Social aspects. I. Title. 
HQ799.2.I5B68 2014 

O04.67'8o835 — dc23 


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. 

This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48— 1992 
(Permanence of Paper) . 

10 987654321 

For Peter Lyman (1940-2007), who took a 
chance on me and helped me find solid ground 


preface ix 

introduction 1 

1 identity why do teens seem strange online? 29 

2 privacy why do youth share so publicly? 54 

3 addiction what makes teens obsessed with social media? 77 

4 danger are sexual predators lurking everywhere? 100 

5 bullying is social media amplifying meanness and cruelty? 128 

6 inequality can social media resolve social divisions? 153 

7 literacy are today's youth digital natives? 176 

8 searching for a public of their own 1 99 

appendix: teen demographics 215 

notes 221 

bibliography 245 

acknowledgments 267 

index 273 


The year was 2006, and I was in northern California chatting with 
teenagers about their use of social media. There, I met Mike, a white 
fifteen-year-old who loved YouTube.' He was passionately describing 
the "Extreme Diet Coke and Memos Experiments" video that had 
recently gained widespread attention, as viewers went to YouTube in 
droves to witness the geysers that could be produced when the diet 
soda and mint candy were combined. Various teens had taken to mix- 
ing Memos and Diet Coke just to see what would happen, and Mike 
was among them. He was ecstatic to show me the homemade video he 
and his friends had made while experimenting with common food 
items. As he walked me through his many other YouTube videos, 
Mike explained that his school allowed him to borrow a video camera 
for school assignments. Students were actively encouraged to make 
videos or other media as part of group projects to display their class- 
room knowledge. He and his friends had taken to borrowing the cam- 
era on Fridays, making sure to tape their homework assignment before 
spending the rest of the weekend making more entertaining videos. 
None of the videos they made were of especially high quality, and 
while they shared them publicly on YouTube, only their friends 
watched them. Still, whenever they got an additional view — even if 
only because they forced a friend to watch the video — they got excited. 

As we were talking and laughing and exploring Mike's online vid- 
eos, Mike paused and turned to me with a serious look on his face. 
"Can you do me a favor?" he asked, "Can you talk to my mom? 
Can you tell her that I'm not doing anything wrong on the internet?" 
I didn't immediately respond, and so he jumped in to clarify. "I 


mean, she thinks that everything online is bad, and you seem to get 
it, and you're an adult. Will you talk to her? " I smiled and promised 
him that I would. 

This book is just that: my attempt to describe and explain the net- 
worked lives of teens to the people who worry about them — parents, 
teachers, policy makers, journalists, sometimes even other teens. It is 
the product of an eight-year effort to explore various aspects of teens' 
engagement with social media and other networked technologies. 

To get at teens' practices, I crisscrossed the United States from 
2005 to 2012, talking with and observing teens from eighteen states 
and a wide array of socioeconomic and ethnic communities. I spent 
countless hours observing teens through the traces they left online 
via social network sites, blogs, and other genres of social media. I 
hung out with teens in physical spaces like schools, public parks, 
malls, churches, and fast food restaurants. 

To dive deeper into particular issues, I conducted 166 formal, semi- 
structured interviews with teens during the period 2007-2010. 2 I 
interviewed teens in their homes, at school, and in various public set- 
tings. In addition, I talked with parents, teachers, librarians, youth 
ministers, and others who worked directly with youth. I became an 
expert on youth culture. In addition, my technical background and 
experience working with and for technology companies building 
social media tools gave me firsthand knowledge about how social 
media was designed, implemented, and introduced to the public. 
Together, these two strains of expertise allowed me to enter into 
broader policy conversations, serve on commissions focused on youth 
practices, and help influence public conversations about networked 

As I began to get a feel for the passions and frustrations of teens 
and to speak to broader audiences, I recognized that teens' voices 
rarely shaped the public discourse surrounding their networked lives. 
So many people talk about youth engagement with social media, but 
very few of them are willing to take the time to listen to teens, to hear 
them, or to pay attention to what they have to say about their lives, 

x preface 

online and off. I wrote this book to address that gap. Throughout 
this book, I draw on the voices of teens I've interviewed as well as 
those I've observed or met more informally. At times, I also pull sto- 
ries from the media or introduce adults' perspectives to help provide 
context or offer additional examples. 

I wrote this book to reflect the experiences and perspectives of the 
teens that I encountered. Their voices shape this book just as their 
stories shaped my understanding of the role of social media in their 
lives. My hope is that this book will shed light on the complex and 
fascinating practices of contemporary American youth as they try to 
find themselves in a networked world. 

As you read this book, my hope is that you will suspend your 
assumptions about youth in an effort to understand the social lives of 
networked teens. By and large, the kids are all right. But they want 
to be understood. This book is my attempt to do precisely that. 

preface xi 




One evening, in September 2010, 1 was in the stands at a high school 
football game in Nashville, Tennessee, experiencing a powerful sense 
of deja vu. As a member of my high school's marching band in the 
mid-1990s, I had spent countless Friday nights in stands across cen- 
tral Pennsylvania, pretending to cheer on my school's football team 
so that I could hang out with my friends. The scene at the school in 
Nashville in 2010 could easily have taken place when I was in high 
school almost two decades earlier. It was an archetypical American 
night, and immediately legible to me. I couldn't help but smile at the 
irony, given that I was in Nashville to talk with teens about how 
technology had changed their lives. As I sat in the stands, I thought: 
the more things had changed, the more they seemed the same. 

I recalled speaking to a teen named Stan whom I'd met in Iowa 
three years earlier. He had told me to stop looking for differences. 
"You'd actually be surprised how little things change. I'm guessing a 
lot of the drama is still the same, it's just the format is a little differ- 
ent. It's just changing the font and changing the background color 
really." He made references to technology to remind me that technol- 
ogy wasn't changing anything important. 

Back in Nashville, the cheerleaders screamed, "Defense!" and 
waved their colorful pom-poms, while boys in tuxes and girls in for- 
mal gowns lined up on the track that circled the football field, signal- 
ing that halftime was approaching. This was a Homecoming game, 
and at halftime the Homecoming Court paraded onto the field in 
formal attire to be introduced to the audience before the announcer 
declared the King and Queen. The Court was made up of eight girls 

and eight boys, half of whom were white and half of whom were 
black. I reflected on the lack of Asian or Hispanic representation in a 
town whose demographics were changing. The announcer intro- 
duced each member to the audience, focusing on their extracurricu- 
lar activities, their participation in one of the local churches, and 
their dreams for the future. 

Meanwhile, most of the student body was seated in the stands. They 
were decked out in the school colors, many even having painted their 
faces in support. But they were barely paying attention to what was 
happening on the field. Apart from a brief hush when the Homecom- 
ing Court was presented, they spent the bulk of the time facing one 
another, chatting, enjoying a rare chance to spend unstructured time 
together as friends and peers. 

As in many schools I've visited over the years, friendships at this 
school in Nashville were largely defined by race, gender, sexuality, 
and grade level, and those networks were immediately visible based 
on whom students were talking to or sitting with. By and large, the 
students were cordoned off in their own section on the sides of 
the stands while parents and more "serious" fans occupied the seats 
in the center. Most of the students in the stands were white and 
divided by grade: the upperclassmen took the seats closest to the 
field, while the freshmen were pushed toward the back. Girls were 
rarely alone with boys, but when they were, they were holding hands. 
The teens who swarmed below and to the right of the stands repre- 
sented a different part of the school. Unlike their peers in the stands, 
most of the students milling about below were black. Aside from the 
Homecoming Court, only one group was racially mixed, and they 
were recognizable mainly for their "artistic" attire — unnaturally col- 
orful hair, piercings, and black clothing that I recognized from the 
racks of Hot Topic, a popular mall-based chain store that caters to 
goths, punks, and other subcultural groups. 

Only two things confirmed that this was not 1994: the fashion and 
the cell phones. Gone were the i98os-inspired bangs, perms, and 
excessive use of hair gel and hairspray that dominated my high school 

2 introduction 

well into the 1990s. And unlike 1994, cell phones were everywhere. 
As far as I could tell, every teen at the game that day in Nashville 
had one: iPhones, Blackberries, and other high-end smartphones 
seemed to be especially popular at this upper-middle-class school. 
Unsurprisingly, the phones in the hands of the white students were 
often more expensive or of more elite brands than those in the hands 
of the black students. 

The pervasiveness of cell phones in the stands isn't that startling; 
over 80 percent of high school students in the United States had a 
cell phone in 2010. 1 What was surprising, at least to most adults, 
was how little the teens actually used them as phones. The teens I 
observed were not making calls. They whipped out their phones to 
take photos of the Homecoming Court, and many were texting fran- 
tically while trying to find one another in the crowd. Once they con- 
nected, the texting often stopped. On the few occasions when a 
phone did ring, the typical response was an exasperated "Mom!" or 
"Dad!" implying a parent calling to check in, which, given the teens' 
response to such calls, was clearly an unwanted interruption. And 
even though many teens are frequent texters, the teens were not 
directing most of their attention to their devices. When they did look 
at their phones, they were often sharing the screen with the person 
sitting next to them, reading or viewing something together. 

The parents in the stands were paying much more attention to 
their devices. They were even more universally equipped with smart- 
phones than their children, and those devices dominated their focus. 
I couldn't tell whether they were checking email or simply supple- 
menting the football game with other content, being either bored or 
distracted. But many adults were staring into their devices intently, 
barely looking up when a touchdown was scored. And unlike the 
teens, they weren't sharing their devices with others or taking photos 
of the event. 

Although many parents I've met lament their children's obsession 
with their phones, the teens in Nashville were treating their phones 
as no more than a glorified camera plus coordination device. The 

introduction 3 

reason was clear: their friends were right there with them. They 
didn't need anything else. 

I had come to Nashville to better understand how social media 
and other technologies had changed teens' lives. I was fascinated 
with the new communication and information technologies that 
had emerged since I was in high school. I had spent my own teen 
years online, and I was among the first generation of teens who 
did so. But that was a different era; few of my friends in the early 
1990s were interested in computers at all. And my own interest in the 
internet was related to my dissatisfaction with my local community. 
The internet presented me with a bigger world, a world populated 
by people who shared my idiosyncratic interests and were ready to 
discuss them at any time, day or night. I grew up in an era where 
going online — or "jacking in" — was an escape mechanism, and I 
desperately wanted to escape. 

The teens I met are attracted to popular social media like Face- 
book and Twitter or mobile technologies like apps and text messag- 
ing for entirely different reasons. Unlike me and the other early 
adopters who avoided our local community by hanging out in chat- 
rooms and bulletin boards, most teenagers now go online to connect 
to the people in their community. Their online participation is not 
eccentric; it is entirely normal, even expected. 

The day after the football game in Nashville, I interviewed a girl 
who had attended the Homecoming game. We sat down and went 
through her Facebook page, where she showed me various photos 
from the night before. Facebook hadn't been on her mind during the 
game, but as soon as she got home, she uploaded her photos, tagged 
her friends, and started commenting on others' photos. The status 
updates I saw on her page were filled with references to conversations 
that took place at the game. She used Facebook to extend the plea- 
sure she had in connecting with her classmates during the game. 
Although she couldn't physically hang out with her friends after the 
game ended, she used Facebook to stay connected after the stands 
had cleared. 

4 introduction 

Social media plays a crucial role in the lives of networked teens. 
Although the specific technologies change, they collectively provide 
teens with a space to hang out and connect with friends. Teens' 
mediated interactions sometimes complement or supplement their 
face-to-face encounters. In 2006, when MySpace was at the height 
of its popularity, eighteen-year-old Skyler told her mother that being 
on MySpace was utterly essential to her social life. She explained, 
"If you're not on MySpace, you don't exist." What Skyler meant 
is simply that social acceptance depends on the ability to socialize 
with one's peers at the "cool" place. Each cohort of teens has a differ- 
ent space that it decides is cool. It used to be the mall, but for the 
youth discussed in this book, social network sites like Facebook, 
Twitter, and Instagram are the cool places. Inevitably, by the time 
this book is published, the next generation of teens will have inhab- 
ited a new set of apps and tools, making social network sites feel 
passe. The spaces may change, but the organizing principles aren't 

Although some teens still congregate at malls and football games, 
the introduction of social media does alter the landscape. It enables 
youth to create a cool space without physically transporting them- 
selves anywhere. And because of a variety of social and cultural fac- 
tors, social media has become an important public space where teens 
can gather and socialize broadly with peers in an informal way. Teens 
are looking for a place of their own to make sense of the world beyond 
their bedrooms. Social media has enabled them to participate in and 
help create what I call networked publics. 

In this book, I document how and why social media has become 
central to the lives of so many American teens and how they navigate 
the networked publics that are created through those technologies. 2 
I also describe — and challenge — the anxieties that many American 
adults have about teens' engagement with social media. By illustrat- 
ing teens' practices, habits, and the tensions between teens and adults, 
I attempt to provide critical insight into the networked lives of con- 
temporary youth. 

introduction 5 

What Is Social Media? 

Over the past decade, social media has evolved from being an eso- 
teric jumble of technologies to a set of sites and services that are at the 
heart of contemporary culture. Teens turn to a plethora of popular 
services to socialize, gossip, share information, and hang out. Although 
this book addresses a variety of networked technologies — including 
the internet broadly and mobile services like texting specifically — 
much of it focuses on a collection of services known as social media. I 
use the term social media to refer to the sites and services that emerged 
during the early 2000s, including social network sites, video sharing 
sites, blogging and microblogging platforms, and related tools that 
allow participants to create and share their own content. In addition to 
referring to various communication tools and platforms, social media 
also hints at a cultural mindset that emerged in the mid-2000s as part 
of the technical and business phenomenon referred to as "Web2.o." 3 

The services known as social media are neither the first — nor 
the only — tools to support significant social interaction or enable 
teenagers to communicate and engage in meaningful online com- 
munities. Though less popular than they once were, tools like email, 
instant messaging, and online forums are still used by teens. But as a 
cultural phenomenon, social media has reshaped the information 
and communication ecosystem. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, early internet adopters used services like 
email and instant messaging to chat with people they knew; they 
turned to public-facing services like chatrooms and bulletin boards 
when they wanted to connect with strangers. Although many who 
participated in early online communities became friends with people 
they met online, most early adopters entered these spaces without 
knowing the other people in the space. Online communities were 
organized by topic, with separate spaces for those interested in dis- 
cussing Middle East politics or getting health advice or finding out 
how various programming languages worked. 

Beginning around 2003, the increased popularity of blogging and 
the rise of social network sites reconfigured this topically oriented land- 

6 introduction 

scape. Although the most visible Hogging services helped people con- 
nect based on shared interests, the vast majority of bloggers were 
Hogging for, and reading Hogs of, people they knew. 4 When early 
social network sites like Friendster and MySpace launched, they were 
designed to enable users to meet new people — and, notably, friends of 
friends — who might share their interests, tastes, or passions. Friendster, 
in particular, was designed as a matchmaking service. In other words, 
social network sites were designed for social networkzVzg. Yet what made 
these services so unexpectedly popular was that they also provided a 
platform for people to connect with their friends. Rather than focusing 
on the friends of friends who could be met through the service, many 
early adopters simply focused on socializing with their friends. At the 
height of its popularity, MySpace's tagline was "A Place for Friends," 
and that's precisely what the service was for many of its users. 

Social network sites changed the essence of online communities. 
Whereas early online community tools like Usenet and bulletin 
boards were organized around interests, even if people used them to 
engage with friends, Hogs, like homepages, were organized around 
individuals. Links allowed people to highlight both their friends and 
those who shared their interests. Social network sites downplayed the 
importance of interests and made friendship the organizing tenant 
of the genre. 

Early adopters had long embraced internet technologies to social- 
ize with others, but in more mainstream culture, participating in 
online communities was often viewed as an esoteric practice for geeks 
and other social outcasts. By the mid-2000s, with the mainstreaming 
of internet access and the rise of social media — and especially 
MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter — sharing information and con- 
necting to friends online became an integrated part of daily life for 
many people, and especially the teens who came of age during this 
period. Rather than being seen as a subcultural practice, participat- 
ing in social media became normative. 

Although teens have embraced countless tools for communicating 
with one another, their widespread engagement with social media 

introduction 7 

has been unprecedented. Teens who used Facebook or Instagram or 
Tumblr in 2013 weren't seen as peculiar. Nor were those who used 
Xanga, Livejournal, or MySpace in the early to mid-20oos. At the 
height of their popularity, the best-known social media tools aren't 
viewed with disdain, nor is participation seen to be indicative of aso- 
cial tendencies. In fact, as I describe throughout this book, engage- 
ment with social media is simply an everyday part of life, akin to 
watching television and using the phone. This is a significant shift 
from my experiences growing up using early digital technologies. 

Even though many of the tools and services that I reference through- 
out this book are now passe, the core activities I discuss — chatting and 
socializing, engaging in self-expression, grappling with privacy, and 
sharing media and information — are here to stay. Although the specific 
sites and apps may be constantly changing, the practices that teens 
engage in as they participate in networked publics remain the same. 
New technologies and mobile apps change the landscape, but teens' 
interactions with social media through their phones extend similar 
practices and activities into geographically unbounded settings. The 
technical shifts that have taken place since I began this project — and in 
the time between me writing this book and you reading it — are impor- 
tant, but many of the arguments made in the following pages transcend 
particular technical moments, even if the specific examples used to 
illustrate those issues are locked in time. 

The Significance of Networked Publics 

Teens are passionate about finding their place in society. What 
is different as a result of social media is that teens' perennial desire 
for social connection and autonomy is now being expressed in net- 
worked publics. Networked publics are publics that are restructured 
by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the 
space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imag- 
ined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, 
technology, and practice. 5 

8 introduction 

Although the term public has resonance in everyday language, the 
construct of a public — let alone publics — tends to be more academic 
in nature. What constitutes a public in this sense can vary. It can be 
an accessible space in which people can gather freely. Or, as political 
scientist Benedict Anderson describes, a public can be a collection of 
people who understand themselves to be part of an imagined com- 
munity. 6 People are a part of multiple publics — bounded as audiences 
or by geography — and yet, publics often intersect and intertwine. 
Publics get tangled up in one another, challenging any effort to 
understand the boundaries and shape of any particular public. When 
US presidents give their State of the Union speeches, they may have 
written them with the American public in mind, but their speeches 
are now accessible around the globe. As a result, it's never quite clear 
who fits into the public imagined by a president. 

Publics serve different purposes. They can be political in nature, or 
they can be constructed around shared identities and social practices. 
The concept of a public often invokes the notion of a state-controlled 
entity, but publics can also involve private actors, such as companies, 
or commercial spaces like malls. Because of the involvement of media 
in contemporary publics, publics are also interconnected to the 
notion of audience. All of these constructs blur and are contested by 
scholars. By invoking the term publics, I'm not trying to take a posi- 
tion within the debates so much as to make use of the wide array of 
different interwoven issues signaled by that term. Publics provide a 
space and a community for people to gather, connect, and help con- 
struct society as we understand it. 

Networked publics are publics both in the spatial sense and in the 
sense of an imagined community. They are built on and through social 
media and other emergent technologies. As spaces, the networked pub- 
lics that exist because of social media allow people to gather and connect, 
hang out, and joke around. Networked publics formed through technol- 
ogy serve much the same functions as publics like the mall or the park 
did for previous generations of teenagers. As social constructs, social 
media creates networked publics that allow people to see themselves as a 

introduction 9 

part of a broader community. Just as shared TV consumption once 
allowed teens to see themselves as connected through mass media, social 
media allows contemporary teens to envision themselves as part of a 
collectively imagined community 

Teens engage with networked publics for the same reasons they 
have always relished publics; they want to be a part of the broader 
world by connecting with other people and having the freedom of 
mobility. Likewise, many adults fear networked technologies for the 
same reasons that adults have long been wary of teen participation in 
public life and teen socialization in parks, malls, and other sites where 
youth congregate. If I have learned one thing from my research, it's 
this: social media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing 
teens with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, 
more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults. 

Although the underlying structure of physical spaces and the 
relationships that are enabled by them are broadly understood, 
both the architecture of networked spaces and the ways they allow 
people to connect are different. Even if teens are motivated to engage 
with networked publics to fulfill desires to socialize that predate the 
internet, networked technologies alter the social ecosystem and thus 
affect the social dynamics that unfold. 

To understand what is new and what is not, it's important to under- 
stand how technology introduces new social possibilities and how 
these challenge assumptions people have about everyday interactions. 
The design and architecture of environments enable certain types of 
interaction to occur. Round tables with chairs make chatting with 
someone easier than classroom-style seating. Even though students can 
twist around and talk to the person behind them, a typical classroom 
is designed to encourage everyone to face the teacher. The particular 
properties or characteristics of an environment can be understood as 
affordances because they make possible — and, in some cases, are used 
to encourage — certain types of practices, even if they do not deter- 
mine what practices will unfold. 7 Understanding the affordances of a 
particular technology or space is important because it sheds light on 

10 introduction 

what people can leverage or resist in achieving their goals. For exam- 
ple, the affordances of a thick window allow people to see each other 
without being able to hear each other. To communicate in spite of the 
window, they may pantomime, hold up signs with written messages, or 
break the glass. The window's affordances don't predict how people 
will communicate, but they do shape the situation nonetheless. 

Because technology is involved, networked publics have different 
characteristics than traditional physical public spaces. Four affor- 
dances, in particular, shape many of the mediated environments 
that are created by social media. Although these affordances are not 
in and of themselves new, their relation to one another because 
of networked publics creates new opportunities and challenges. 
They are: 

• persistence: the durability of online expressions and content; 

• visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness; 

• spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared; and 

• searchability: the ability to find content. 

Content shared through social media often sticks around because 
technologies are designed to enable persistence. The fact that content 
often persists has significant implications. Such content enables inter- 
actions to take place over time in an asynchronous fashion. Alice 
may write to Bob at midnight while Bob is sound asleep; but when 
Bob wakes up in the morning or comes back from summer camp 
three weeks later, that message will still be there waiting for him, 
even if Alice had forgotten about it. Persistence means that conversa- 
tions conducted through social media are far from ephemeral; they 
endure. Persistence enables different kinds of interactions than the 
ephemerality of a park. Alice's message doesn't expire when Bob 
reads it, and Bob can keep that message for decades. What persis- 
tence also means, then, is that those using social media are often "on 
the record" to an unprecedented degree. 

Through social media, people can easily share with broad audi- 
ences and access content from greater distances, which increases the 

introduction 1 1 

potential visibility of any particular message. More often than not, 
what people put up online using social media is widely accessible 
because most systems are designed such that sharing with broader or 
more public audiences is the default. Many popular systems require 
users to take active steps to limit the visibility of any particular piece 
of shared content. This is quite different from physical spaces, where 
people must make a concerted effort to make content visible to siz- 
able audiences. 8 In networked publics, interactions are often public 
by default, private through effort. 

Social media is often designed to help people spread information, 
whether by explicitly or implicitly encouraging the sharing of links, 
providing reblogging or favoriting tools that repost images or texts, or 
by making it easy to copy and paste content from one place to another. 
Thus, much of what people post online is easily spreadable with the 
click of a few keystrokes. 9 Some systems provide simple buttons to 
"forward," "repost," or "share" content to articulated or curated lists. 
Even when these tools aren't built into the system, content can often 
be easily downloaded or duplicated and then forwarded along. The 
ease with which everyday people can share media online is unrivaled, 
which can be both powerful and problematic. Spreadability can be 
leveraged to rally people for a political cause or to spread rumors. 

Last, since the rise of search engines, people's communications are 
also often searchable. My mother would have loved to scream, "Find!" 
and see where my friends and I were hanging out and what we were 
talking about. Now, any inquisitive onlooker can query databases 
and uncover countless messages written by and about others. Even 
messages that were crafted to be publicly accessible were not neces- 
sarily posted with the thought that they would reappear through a 
search engine. Search engines make it easy to surface esoteric interac- 
tions. These tools are often designed to eliminate contextual cues, 
increasing the likelihood that searchers will take what they find out 
of context. 

None of the capabilities enabled by social media are new. The let- 
ters my grandparents wrote during their courtship were persistent. 

12 introduction 

Messages printed in the school newspaper or written on bathroom 
walls have long been visible. Gossip and rumors have historically 
spread like wildfire through word of mouth. And although search 
engines certainly make inquiries more efficient, the practice of ask- 
ing after others is not new, even if search engines mean that no one 
else knows. What is new is the way in which social media alters and 
amplifies social situations by offering technical features that people 
can use to engage in these well-established practices. 

As people use these different tools, they help create new social dynam- 
ics. For example, teens "stalk" one another by searching for highly vis- 
ible, persistent data about people they find interesting. "Drama" starts 
when teens increase the visibility of gossip by spreading it as fast as pos- 
sible through networked publics. And teens seek attention by exploiting 
searchability, spreadability, and persistence to maximize the visibility of 
their garage band's YouTube video. The particular practices that emerge 
as teens use the tools around them create the impression that teen soci- 
ality is radically different even though the underlying motivations and 
social processes have not changed that much. 

Just because teens can and do manipulate social media to attract 
attention and increase visibility does not mean that they are equally 
experienced at doing so or that they automatically have the skills 
to navigate what unfolds. It simply means that teens are generally 
more comfortable with — and tend to be less skeptical of — social 
media than adults. They don't try to analyze how things are different 
because of technology; they simply try to relate to a public world in 
which technology is a given. Because of their social position, what's 
novel for teens is not the technology but the public life that it enables. 
Teens are desperate to have access to and make sense of public life; 
understanding the technologies that enable publics is just par for 
the course. Adults, in contrast, have more freedom to explore various 
public environments. They are more likely — and more equipped — to 
compare networked publics to other publics. As a result, they focus 
more on how networked publics seem radically different from other 
publics, such as those that unfold at the local bar or through church. 

introduction 13 

Because of their experience and stage in life, teens and adults are 
typically focused on different issues. Whereas teens are focused on 
what it means to be in public, adults are more focused on what it 
means to be networked. 

Throughout this book, I return to these four affordances to discuss 
how engagement with networked publics affects everyday social 
practices. It's important to note, however, this is not how teenagers 
themselves would describe the shifts that are under way. More often 
than not, they are unaware of why the networked publics they inhabit 
are different than other publics or why adults find networked publics 
so peculiar. To teens, these technologies — and the properties that 
go with them — are just an obvious part of life in a networked era, 
whereas for many adults these affordances reveal changes that are 
deeply disconcerting. As I return to these issues throughout the book, 
I will juxtapose teens' perspectives alongside adults' anxieties to 
highlight what has changed and what has stayed the same. 

New Technologies, Old Hopes and Fears 

Any new technology that captures widespread attention is likely to 
provoke serious hand wringing, if not full-blown panic. When the 
sewing machine was introduced, there were people who feared the 
implications that women moving their legs up and down would 
affect female sexuality. 10 The Walkman music player was viewed as 
an evil device that would encourage people to disappear into separate 
worlds, unable to communicate with one another. 11 Technologies are 
not the only cultural artifacts to prompt these so-called moral pan- 
ics; new genres of media also cause fearful commentary. Those who 
created comic books, penny arcades, and rock-and-roll music have 
been seen as sinister figures bent on seducing children into becoming 
juvenile delinquents. 12 Novels were believed to threaten women's 
morals, a worry that Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary dramatizes 
brilliantly. Even Socrates is purported to have warned of the dangers 
of the alphabet and writing, citing implications for memory and the 
ability to convey truth. 13 These fears are now laughable, but when 

14 introduction 

these technologies or media genres first appeared, they were taken 
very seriously 

Even the most fleeting acquaintance with the history of informa- 
tion and communication technologies indicates that moral panics are 
episodic and should be taken with a grain of salt. So too with Utopian 
visions, which prove just as unrealistic. A popular T-shirt designed 
by John Slabyk and sold on the website Threadless sums up the 
disillusionment with failed technological Utopias: 

they lied to us 

this was supposed to be the future 

where is my jetpack, 

where is my robotic companion, 

where is my dinner in pill form, 

where is my hydrogen fueled automobile, 

where is my nuclear-powered levitating house, 

where is my cure for this disease 

Technologies are often heralded as the solution to major world 
problems. When those solutions fail to transpire, people are disillu- 
sioned. This can prompt a backlash, as people focus on the terrible 
things that may occur because of those same technologies. 

A great deal of the fear and anxiety that surrounds young people's 
use of social media stems from misunderstanding or dashed hopes. 14 
More often than not, what emerges out of people's confusion takes the 
form of Utopian and dystopian rhetoric. This issue will reappear 
throughout the book. Sometimes, as in the case of sexual predators and 
other online safety issues, misunderstanding results in a moral panic. 
In other cases, such as the dystopian notion that teens are addicted to 
social media or the Utopian idea that technology will solve inequality, 
the focus on technology simply obscures other dynamics at play. 

Both extremes depend on a form of magical thinking scholars call 
technological determinism. 15 Utopian and dystopian views assume that 
technologies possess intrinsic powers that affect all people in all situ- 
ations the same way. Utopian rhetoric assumes that when a particular 

introduction 15 

technology is broadly adopted it will transform society in magnifi- 
cent ways, while dystopian visions focus on all of the terrible things 
that will happen because of the widespread adoption of a particular 
technology that ruins everything. These extreme rhetorics are equally 
unhelpful in understanding what actually happens when new tech- 
nologies are broadly adopted. Reality is nuanced and messy, full of 
pros and cons. Living in a networked world is complicated. 

Kids Will Be Kids 

If you listen to the voices of youth, the story you'll piece together 
reveals a hodgepodge of opportunities and challenges, changes and 
continuity. As with the football game in Nashville, many elements of 
American teen culture remain unchanged in the digital age. School 
looks remarkably familiar, and many of the same anxieties and hopes 
that shaped my experience are still recognizable today. Others are 
strikingly different, but what differs often has less to do with technol- 
ogy and more to do with increased consumerism, heightened compe- 
tition for access to limited opportunities, and an intense amount of 
parental pressure, especially in wealthier communities. 16 All too often, 
it is easier to focus on the technology than on the broader systemic 
issues that are at play because technical changes are easier to see. 

Nostalgia gets in the way of understanding the relation between 
teens and technology. Adults may idealize their childhoods and for- 
get the trials and tribulations they faced. Many adults I meet assume 
that their own childhoods were better and richer, simpler and safer, 
than the digitally mediated ones contemporary youth experience. 
They associate the rise of digital technology with decline — social, 
intellectual, and moral. The research I present here suggests that the 
opposite is often true. 

Many of the much-hyped concerns discussed because of technology 
are not new (for example, bullying) but rather may be misleading (for 
example, a decline in attention) or serve as distractions for real risks 
(for example, predators). Most myths are connected to real incidents 
or rooted in data that are blown out of proportion or are deliberately 

16 introduction 

exaggerated to spark fear. Media culture exaggerates this dynamic, 
magnifying anxieties and reinforcing fears. For adults to hear the 
voices of youth, they must let go of their nostalgia and suspend their 
fears. This is not easy. 

Teens continue to occupy an awkward position between childhood 
and adulthood, dependence and independence. They are struggling 
to carve out an identity that is not defined solely by family ties. They 
want to be recognized as someone other than son, daughter, sister, 
or brother. These struggles play themselves out in familiar ways, as 
teens fight for freedoms while not always being willing or able to 
accept responsibilities. Teens simultaneously love and despise, need 
and reject their parents and other adults in their lives. Meanwhile, 
many adults are simultaneously afraid of teens and afraid for them. 

Teens' efforts to control their self-presentation — often by donning 
clothing or hairstyles their parents deem socially unacceptable or 
engaging in practices that their parents deem risky — are clearly related 
to their larger effort at self-fashioning and personal autonomy. By 
dressing like the twenty-somethings they see celebrated in popular 
culture, they signal their desire to be seen as independent young 
adults. Fashion choices are one of many ways of forging an identity 
that is cued less to family and more to friends. 

Developing meaningful friendships is a key component of the com- 
ing of age process. Friends offer many things — advice, support, enter- 
tainment, and a connection that combats loneliness. And in doing so, 
they enable the transition to adulthood by providing a context beyond 
that of family and home. Though family is still important, many teens 
relish the opportunity to create relationships that are not simply given 
but chosen. 

The importance of friends in social and moral development is well 
documented. 17 But the fears that surround teens' use of social media 
overlook this fundamental desire for social connection. All too often, 
parents project their values onto their children, failing to recognize 
that school is often not the most pressing concern for most teens. 
Many parents wonder: Why are my kids tethered to their cell phones 

introduction 17 

or perpetually texting with friends even when they are in the same 
room? Why do they seem compelled to check Facebook hundreds of 
times a day? Are they addicted to technology or simply wasting time? 
How will they get into college if they are constantly distracted? I 
encounter these questions from concerned adults whenever I give 
public lectures, and these attitudes figure prominently in parenting 
guides and in journalistic accounts of teens' engagement with social 

Yet these questions seem far less urgent and difficult when we 
acknowledge teens' underlying social motivations. Most teens are not 
compelled by gadgetry as such — they are compelled by friendship. 
The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social 
end. Furthermore, social interactions may be a distraction from 
school, but they are often not a distraction from learning. Keeping 
this basic social dynamic firmly in view makes networked teens sud- 
denly much less worrisome and strange. 

Consider, for example, the widespread concern over internet addic- 
tion. Are there teens who have an unhealthy relationship with technol- 
ogy? Certainly. But most of those who are "addicted" to their phones 
or computers are actually focused on staying connected to friends in a 
culture where getting together in person is highly constrained. Teens' 
preoccupation with their friends dovetails with their desire to enter 
the public spaces that are freely accessible to adults. The ability to access 
public spaces for sociable purposes is a critical component of the com- 
ing of age process, and yet many of the public spaces where adults 
gather — bars, clubs, and restaurants — are inaccessible to teens. 

As teens transition from childhood, they try to understand 
how they fit into the larger world. They want to inhabit public spaces, 
but they also look to adults, including public figures, to understand 
what it means to be grown-up. They watch their parents and other 
adults in their communities for models of adulthood. But they also 
track celebrities like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to imagine 
the freedoms they would have if they were famous. For better or 
worse, media narratives also help construct broader narratives for 

18 introduction 

how public life works. "Reality" TV shows like Jersey Shore signal the 
potential fun that can be had by young adults who don't need to 
appease parents and teachers. 

Some teens may reject the messages of adulthood that they hear or 
see, but they still learn from all of the signals around them. As they 
start to envision themselves as young adults, they begin experiment- 
ing with the boundaries of various freedoms, pushing for access to 
cars or later curfews. Teens' determination to set their own agenda 
can be nerve-racking for some parents, particularly those who want to 
protect their children from every possible danger. Coming of age is 
rife with self-determination, risk taking, and tough decision-making. 

Teens often want to be with friends on their own terms, without 
adult supervision, and in public. Paradoxically, the networked pub- 
lics they inhabit allow them a measure of privacy and autonomy that 
is not possible at home where parents and siblings are often listening 
in. Recognizing this is important to understanding teens' relation- 
ship to social media. Although many adults think otherwise, teens' 
engagement with public life through social media is not a rejection 
of privacy. Teens may wish to enjoy the benefits of participating in 
public, but they also relish intimacy and the ability to have control 
over their social situation. Their ability to achieve privacy is often 
undermined by nosy adults — notably their parents and teachers — 
but teens go to great lengths to develop innovative strategies for man- 
aging privacy in networked publics. 

Social media enables a type of youth-centric public space that is 
often otherwise inaccessible. But because that space is highly visible, 
it can often provoke concerns among adults who are watching teens 
as they try to find their way. 

A Place to Call Their Own 

Sitting in a cafeteria in a small town in Iowa in 2007, 1 was talking 
with Heather, a white sixteen-year-old, when the topic of adult atti- 
tudes toward Facebook came up. Heather had recently heard that 
politicians were trying to prohibit teen access to social network sites, 

introduction 19 

and she was incensed. "I'm really mad about it. It's social networking. 
It really is a way to communicate, and if they ban that, it's really hard 
to communicate with other people you don't see that much." I asked 
her why she didn't just get together with her friends in person. The 
rant that followed made clear that I had touched a nerve. 

I can't really go see people in person. I can barely hang out 
with my friends on the weekend, let alone people I don't talk 
to as often. I'm so busy. I've got lots of homework, I'm busy 
with track, I've got a job, and when I'm not working and doing 
homework I'm hanging out with the good friends that I have. 
But there's some people I've kind of lost contact with and I like 
keeping connected to them because they're still friends. I just 
haven't talked to them in a while. I have no means of doing 
that. If they go to a different school it's really hard and I don't 
exactly know where everyone lives, and I don't have everyone's 
cell phone numbers, and I don't have all of their AIM screen 
names either, so Facebook makes it a lot easier for me. 

For Heather, social media is not only a tool; it is a social lifeline 
that enables her to stay connected to people she cares about but can- 
not otherwise interact with in person. Without the various sites and 
services she uses, Heather — like many of her peers — believes that her 
social life would significantly shrink. She doesn't see Facebook as 
inherently useful, but it's where everyone she knows is hanging out. 
And it's the place to go when she doesn't know how to contact some- 
one directly. 

The social media tools that teens use are direct descendants of the 
hangouts and other public places in which teens have been congre- 
gating for decades. What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and 
the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, 
and other social media are to teens now. Teens flock to them know- 
ing they can socialize with friends and become better acquainted 
with classmates and peers they don't know as well. They embrace 
social media for roughly the same reasons earlier generations of teens 


attended sock hops, congregated in parking lots, colonized people's 
front stoops, or tied up the phone lines for hours on end. Teens want 
to gossip, flirt, complain, compare notes, share passions, emote, and 
joke around. They want to be able to talk among themselves — even 
if that means going online. 

Heather's reliance on Facebook and other tools registers an impor- 
tant change in teen experience. This change is not rooted in social 
media but instead helps explain the popularity of digital technolo- 
gies. Many American teens have limited geographic freedom, less 
free time, and more rules. In many communities across the United 
States, the era of being able to run around after school so long as 
you are home by dark is long over. 18 Many teens are stuck at home 
until they are old enough to drive themselves. For younger teens, get- 
ting together with friends after school depends on cooperative par- 
ents with flexible schedules who are willing or able to chauffeur and 

Socializing is also more homebound. Often, teens meet in each 
other's homes rather than public spaces. And no wonder: increasing 
regulation means that there aren't as many public spaces for teens to 
gather. The mall, once one of the main hubs for suburban teens, 
is much less accessible now than it once was. 19 Because malls are pri- 
vately owned spaces, proprietors can prohibit anyone they wish, and 
many of them have prohibited groups of teenagers from entering. In 
addition, parents are less willing to allow their children to hang out 
in malls, out of fear of the strangers teens may encounter. Teens sim- 
ply have far fewer places to be together in public than they once 
did. 10 And the success of social media must be understood partly in 
relation to this shrinking social landscape. Facebook, Twitter, and 
MySpace are not only new public spaces: they are in many cases the 
only "public" spaces in which teens can easily congregate with large 
groups of their peers. More significantly, teens can gather in them 
while still physically stuck at home. 

Teens told me time and again that they would far rather meet 
up in person, but the hectic and heavily scheduled nature of their 

introduction 21 

day-to-day lives, their lack of physical mobility, and the fears of their 
parents have made such face-to-face interactions increasingly impos- 
sible. As Amy, a biracial sixteen-year-old in Seattle, succinctly put it: 
"My mom doesn't let me out of the house very often, so that's pretty 
much all I do, is sit on MySpace and talk to people and text and talk 
on the phone, cause my mom's always got some crazy reason to keep 
me in the house." Social media may seem like a peculiar place for 
teens to congregate, but for many teens, hanging out on Facebook or 
Twitter is their only opportunity to gather en masse with friends, 
acquaintances, classmates, and other teens. More often than not, 
their passion for social media stems from their desire to socialize. 

Just because teens are comfortable using social media to hang out 
does not mean that they're fluent in or with technology. Many teens 
are not nearly as digitally adept as the often-used assumption that 
they are "digital natives" would suggest. The teens I met knew how 
to get to Google but had little understanding about how to construct 
a query to get quality information from the popular search engine. 
They knew how to use Facebook, but their understanding of the site's 
privacy settings did not mesh with the ways in which they configured 
their accounts. As sociologist Eszter Hargittai has quipped, many 
teens are more likely to be digital naives than digital natives. 21 

The term digital native is a lightning rod for the endless hopes and 
fears that many adults attach to this new generation. Media narratives 
often suggest that kids today — those who have grown up with digital 
technology — are equipped with marvelous new superpowers. Their 
multitasking skills supposedly astound adults almost as much as their 
three thousand text messages per month. Meanwhile, the same breath- 
less media reports also warn the public that these kids are vulnerable 
to unprecedented new dangers: sexual predators, cyberbullying, and 
myriad forms of intellectual and moral decline, including internet 
addiction, shrinking attentions spans, decreased literacy, reckless over- 
sharing, and so on. As with most fears, these anxieties are not without 
precedent even if they are often overblown and misconstrued. The key 
to understanding how youth navigate social media is to step away 

22 introduction 

from the headlines — both good and bad — and dive into the more 
nuanced realities of young people. 

My experience hanging out with teenagers convinced me that 
the greatest challenges facing networked teens are far from new. 
Some challenges are rooted in this country's long history of racial 
and social inequality, but economic variability is increasingly notice- 
able. American teens continue to live and learn in radically uneven 
conditions. I visited schools with state-of-the-art facilities, highly 
credentialed and specialized faculty, and students hell-bent on 
going to Ivy League colleges. At the other extreme, I also visited run- 
down schools with metal detectors, a stream of "substitute" teachers 
standing in for full-time educators, and students who smoked mari- 
juana during class. The explanations for these variations are complex 
and challenging, and the disparity is unlikely to be addressed in the 
near future. 

Although almost all teens have access to technology at this point, 
their access varies tremendously. Some have high-end mobile phones 
with unlimited data plans, their own laptop, and wireless access at 
home. Others are constrained to basic phones with pay-per-text plans 
and access the internet only through the filtered lens of school or 
library computers. Once again, economic inequality plays a central 
role. But access is not the sole divide. Technical skills, media literacy, 
and even basic English literacy all shape how teens experience new 
technologies. Some teens are learning about technology from their 
parents while other teens are teaching their parents how to construct 
a search query or fill out a job application. 

One of the great hopes for the internet was that it would serve 
as the great equalizer. My research into youth culture and social 
media — alongside findings of other researchers — has made it obvi- 
ous that the color-blind and disembodied social world that the inter- 
net was supposed to make possible has not materialized. And this 
unfortunate reality — the reality of racial tensions and discrimination 
that long predates the rise of digital media — often seems to escape 
our public attention. 

introduction 23 

Meanwhile, we hear a lot about how the online spaces that teens 
frequent are sinister worlds populated by sexual predators or bullies. 
But we rarely if ever hear that many teenagers are scarred by the same 
experiences offline. Bullying, racism, sexual predation, slut shaming, 
and other insidious practices that occur online are extraordinarily 
important to address even if they're not new. Helping young people 
navigate public life safely should be of significant public concern. 
But it's critical to recognize that technology does not create these 
problems, even if it makes them more visible and even if news media 
relishes using technology as a hook to tell salacious stories about 
youth. The very sight of at-risk youth should haunt all of us, but little 
is achieved if we focus only on making what we see invisible. 

The internet mirrors, magnifies, and makes more visible the 
good, bad, and ugly of everyday life. As teens embrace these tools and 
incorporate them into their daily practices, they show us how our 
broader social and cultural systems are affecting their lives. When 
teens are hurting offline, they reveal their hurt online. When teens' 
experiences are shaped by racism and misogyny, this becomes visible 
online. In making networked publics their own, teens bring with 
them the values and beliefs that shape their experiences. As a society, 
we need to use the visibility that we get from social media to under- 
stand how the social and cultural fault lines that organize American 
life affect young people. And we need to do so in order to intervene 
in ways that directly help youth who are suffering. 

Ever since the internet entered everyday life — and particularly 
since the widespread adoption of social media — we have been bom- 
barded with stories about how new technologies are destroying our 
social fabric. Amid a stream of scare stories, techno-utopians are 
touting the amazing benefits of online life while cyber-dystopians are 
describing how our brains are disintegrating because of our connec- 
tion to machines. These polarizing views of technology push the dis- 
cussion of youth's engagement with social media to an extreme 
binary: social media is good or social media is bad. These extremes — 
and the myths they perpetuate — obscure the reality of teen practices 


and threaten to turn the generation gap into a gaping chasm. These 
myths distort the reality of teen life, sometimes by idealizing it, but 
more frequently by demonizing it. 

How to Read This Book 

The chapters that follow are dedicated to different issues that 
underpin youth engagement with social media. Many are organized 
around concerns about youth practices that persist in American soci- 
ety. Each chapter offers a grounded way of looking at an issue. 
Although the chapters can be read independently, they are collec- 
tively organized to flow from individual and familial challenges to 
broader societal issues. A conclusion summarizes my arguments and 
offers a deeper analysis of what networked publics mean for contem- 
porary youth. 

As a researcher passionate about the health and well-being of 
young people, I wrote this book in an effort to create a nuanced por- 
trait of everyday teen life in an era in which social media has become 
mainstream. The questions I ask are simple: What is and isn't new 
about life inflected by social media? What does social media add to 
the quality of teens' social lives, and what does it take away? And 
when we as a society don't like the outcomes of technology, 
what can we do to change the equation constructively, making sure 
that we take advantage of the features of social media while limiting 
potential abuse? 

It is much easier to understand myths retrospectively than it is to 
dismantle them as they are being perpetuated, but this book aims to 
do the latter. That said, some of the most pervasive anxieties about 
social media have begun to subside in recent years, as adults have 
started participating in social media and, especially, Facebook. I am 
cautiously hopeful that adult engagement will calm some of the most 
anxious panics. And yet the tropes and stories that I use throughout 
the book tend to be resurrected with each new technology, while oth- 
ers endure in the face of quite overwhelming evidence to the con- 
trary. As many adults have grown comfortable with Facebook, the 

introduction 25 

media's narratives switched to focusing on the scariness of mobile 
apps like Snapchat and Kik. The story remains the same, even if the 
site of panic has shifted. 

Social media has affected the lives and practices of many people 
and will continue to play a significant role in shaping many aspects 
of American society There are many who lament these developments 
or wax nostalgic about the pre-internet world. That said, I would be 
surprised to find anyone who still believes that the internet is going 
away Along with planes, running water, electricity and motorized 
transportation, the internet is now a fundamental fact of modern life. 
This does not mean that access to the internet is universal, and some 
people will always opt out." Even in a country as wealthy as the 
United States, many lack access to sanitation, and some choose to live 
without electricity. Just because the internet — and social media — is 
pervasive in American society does not mean that everyone will have 
access, will want access, or will experience access in the same way. 

Contemporary youth are growing up in a cultural setting in 
which many aspects of their lives will be mediated by technology and 
many of their experiences and opportunities will be shaped by their 
engagement with technology. Fear mongering does little to help 
youth develop the ability to productively engage with this reality. As 
a society, we pay a price for fear mongering and Utopian visions that 
ignore more complex realities. In writing this book, I hope to help 
the public better understand what young people are doing when they 
engage with social media and why their attempts to make sense of the 
world around them should be commended. 

This book is written with a broad audience in mind — scholars and 
students, parents and educators, journalists and librarians. Although 
many sections draw on academic ideas, I do not expect the reader to 
be familiar with the scholarly literature invoked. When necessary for 
understanding the argument, I provide background in the text. More 
often than not, I've provided numerous touchstones and references in 
endnotes and an extensive bibliography that can enable those who 
wish to go deeper or to understand the relevant debates to do so. 


Throughout this book, I draw on qualitative and ethnographic 
material that I collected from 2003 to 2012 — and interview data con- 
ducted from 2007 to 2010 — to provide a descriptive portrait of the 
different issues that I discuss. 23 Given the context in which I'm writ- 
ing and the data on which I'm drawing, most of the discussion is 
explicitly oriented around American teen culture, although some of 
my analysis may be relevant in other cultures and contexts. 14 I also 
take for granted, and rarely seek to challenge, the capitalist logic that 
underpins American society and the development of social media. 
Although I believe that these assumptions should be critiqued, this is 
outside the scope of this project. By accepting the cultural context in 
which youth are living, I seek to explain their practices in light of the 
society in which they are situated. 

The networked technologies that were dominant when I began 
researching this book are different than those that were popular 
when I was finishing the manuscript. Even MySpace — once the 
dominant social network site among youth and referred to through- 
out this book — is barely a shadow of its former self in 2013. Quite 
probably, what's popular when you're reading this book is different 
still. As I write this, Facebook is losing its allure as new apps and 
services like Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat gain hold. Social 
media is a moving landscape; many of the services that I reference 
throughout this book may or may not survive. But the ability to 
navigate one's social relationships, communicate asynchronously, 
and search for information online is here to stay. Don't let my refer- 
ence to outdated services distract you from the arguments in this 
book. The examples may feel antiquated, but the core principles and 
practices I'm trying to describe are likely to persist long after this 
book is published. 

Not everyone has equal access to the internet, nor do we all experi- 
ence it in the same way. But social media is actively shaping and 
being shaped by contemporary society, so it behooves us to move 
beyond punditry and scare tactics to understand what social media is 
and how it fits into the social lives of youth. 

introduction 27 

As a society, we often spend so much time worrying about young 
people that we fail to account for how our paternalism and protec- 
tionism hinders teens' ability to become informed, thoughtful, and 
engaged adults. Regardless of the stories in the media, most young 
people often find ways to push through the restrictions and develop 
a sense of who they are and how they want to engage in the world. I 
want to celebrate their creativity and endurance while also highlight- 
ing that their practices and experiences are not universal or uniformly 

This book is not a love letter to youth culture, although my research 
has convinced me that young people are more resilient than I initially 
believed. Rather, this book is an attempt to convince the adults that have 
power over the lives of youth — including parents and teachers, journal- 
ists and law enforcement officers, employers and military personnel — 
that what teens are doing as they engage in networked publics makes 
sense. At the same time, coming to terms with life in a networked era is 
not necessarily easy or obvious. Rather, it's complicated. 

28 introduction 

1 identity 

why do teens seem 
strange online? 

In 2005, an Ivy League university was considering the application of 
a young black man from South Central Los Angeles. The applicant 
had written a phenomenal essay about how he wanted to walk away 
from the gangs in his community and attend the esteemed institu- 
tion. The admissions officers were impressed: a student who over- 
comes such hurdles is exactly what they like seeing. In an effort to 
learn more about him, the committee members Googled him. They 
found his MySpace profile. It was filled with gang symbolism, crass 
language, and references to gang activities. They recoiled. 

I heard this story when a representative from the admissions office 
contacted me. The representative opened the conversation with a 
simple question: Why would a student lie to an admissions commit- 
tee when the committee could easily find the truth online? I asked 
for context and learned about the candidate. Stunned by the ques- 
tion, my initial response was filled with nervous laughter. I had hung 
out with and interviewed teens from South Central. I was always 
struck by the challenges they faced, given the gang dynamics in their 
neighborhood. Awkwardly, I offered an alternative interpretation: 
perhaps this young man is simply including gang signals on his 
MySpace profile as a survival technique. 

Trying to step into that young man's shoes, I shared with the col- 
lege admissions officer some of the dynamics that I had seen in Los 


Angeles. My hunch was that this teen was probably very conscious of 
the relationship between gangs and others in his hometown. Perhaps 
he felt as though he needed to position himself within the local 
context in a way that wouldn't make him a target. If he was anything 
like other teens I had met, perhaps he imagined the audience of his 
MySpace profile to be his classmates, family, and community — not 
the college admissions committee. Without knowing the teen, my 
guess was that he was genuine in his college essay. At the same time, 
I also suspected that he would never dare talk about his desire to go 
to a prestigious institution in his neighborhood because doing so 
would cause him to be ostracized socially, if not physically attacked. 
As British sociologist Paul Willis argued in the 1980s, when youth 
attempt to change their socioeconomic standing, they often risk 
alienating their home community. 1 This dynamic was often acutely 
present in the communities that I observed. 

The admissions officer was startled by my analysis, and we had a 
long conversation about the challenges of self-representation in a net- 
worked era. 2 I'll never know if that teen was accepted into that pres- 
tigious school, but this encounter stayed with me as I watched other 
adults misinterpret teens' online self-expressions. I came to realize 
that, taken out of context, what teens appear to do and say on social 
media seems peculiar if not outright problematic. 3 

The intended audience matters, regardless of the actual audience. 
Unfortunately, adults sometimes believe that they understand what 
they see online without considering how teens imagined the context 
when they originally posted a particular photograph or comment. 
The ability to understand how context, audience, and identity inter- 
sect is one of the central challenges people face in learning how to 
navigate social media. And, for all of the mistakes that they can and 
do make, teens are often leading the way at figuring out how to nav- 
igate a networked world in which collapsed contexts and imagined 
audiences are par for the course. 

30 identity 

Taken Out of Context 

In his 1985 book No Sense of Place, media scholar Joshua Meyrowitz 
describes the story of Stokely Carmichael, an American civil rights 
activist. In the 1960s, Carmichael regularly gave different talks to 
different audiences. He used a different style of speaking when he 
addressed white political leaders than when he addressed southern 
black congregations. When Carmichael started presenting his ideas 
on television and radio, he faced a difficult decision: which audience 
should he address? No matter which style of speaking he chose, he 
knew he'd alienate some. He was right. By using a rolling pastoral 
voice in broadcast media, Carmichael ingratiated himself with black 
activists while alienating white elites. 

Meyrowitz argues that electronic media like radio and television 
easily collapse seemingly disconnected contexts. Public figures, jour- 
nalists, and anyone in the limelight must regularly navigate discon- 
nected social contexts simultaneously, balancing what they say with 
how their diverse audiences might interpret their actions. A context 
collapse occurs when people are forced to grapple simultaneously with 
otherwise unrelated social contexts that are rooted in different norms 
and seemingly demand different social responses. For example, some 
people might find it quite awkward to run into their former high 
school teacher while drinking with their friends at a bar. These con- 
text collapses happen much more frequently in networked publics. 

The dynamics that Meyrowitz describes are no longer simply the 
domain of high-profile people who have access to broadcast media. 
When teens interact with social media, they must regularly contend 
with collapsed contexts and invisible audiences as a part of everyday 
life. 4 Their teachers might read what they post online for their friends, 
and when their friends from school start debating their friends 
from summer camp, they might be excited that their friend groups 
are combining — or they might find it discomforting. In order to sta- 
bilize the context in their own minds, teens do what others before 
them have done: just like journalists and politicians, teens imagine 
the audience they're trying to reach. 5 In speaking to an unknown or 

identity 31 

invisible audience, it is impossible and unproductive to account for 
the full range of plausible interpretations. Instead, public speakers 
consistently imagine a specific subset of potential readers or viewers 
and focus on how those intended viewers are likely to respond to 
a particular statement. As a result, the imagined audience defines 
the social context. In choosing how to present themselves before dis- 
connected and invisible audiences, people must attempt to resolve 
context collapses or actively define the context in which they're 

Teens often imagine their audience to be those that they've chosen 
to "friend" or "follow," regardless of who might actually see their 
profile. In theory, privacy settings allow teens to limit their expres- 
sions to the people they intend to reach by restricting who can see 
what. On MySpace and Twitter — where privacy settings are rela- 
tively simple — using settings to limit who can access what content 
can be quite doable. Yet, on Facebook, this has proven to be intrac- 
table and confusing, given the complex and constantly changing pri- 
vacy settings on that site. 6 Moreover, many teens have good reasons 
for not limiting who can access their profile. Some teens want to be 
accessible to peers who share their interests. Others recognize that 
privacy settings do little to limit parents from snooping or stop 
friends from sharing juicy messages. Many teens complain about 
parents who look over their shoulders when they're on the computer 
or friends who copy and paste updates and forward them along. 

To complicate matters, just because someone is a part of a teen's 
imagined audience doesn't mean that this person is actually reading 
what's posted. When social media sites offer streams of content — as 
is common on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — people often 
imagine their audience to be the people they're following. But these 
people may not be following them in return or see their posts 
amid the avalanche of shared content. As a result, regardless of how 
they use privacy settings, teens must grapple with who can see their 
profile, who actually does see it, and how those who do see it will 
interpret it. 

32 identity 

Teens' mental model of their audience is often inaccurate, but 
not because teens are naive or stupid. When people are chatting and 
sharing photos with friends via social media, it's often hard to remem- 
ber that viewers who aren't commenting might also be watching. This 
is not an issue unique to teens, although teens are often chastised for 
not accounting for adult onlookers. But just as it's easy to get caught up 
in a conversation at a dinner party and forget about the rest of the 
room, it's easy to get lost in the back-and-forth on Twitter. Social 
media introduces additional challenges, particularly because of the 
persistent and searchable nature of most of these technical systems. 
Tweets and status updates aren't just accessible to the audience who 
happens to be following the thread as it unfolds; they quickly become 
archived traces, accessible to viewers at a later time. These traces can be 
searched and are easily reposted and spread. Thus, the context col- 
lapses that teens face online rarely occur in the moment with conflict- 
ing onlookers responding simultaneously. They are much more likely 
to be experienced over time, as new audiences read the messages in a 
new light. 

When teens face collapsing contexts in physical environments, 
their natural response is to become quiet. For example, if a group of 
teens are hanging out at the mall and a security guard or someone's 
mother approaches them, they will stop whatever conversation they 
are having, even if it's innocuous. While they may be comfortable 
having strangers overhear their exchange, the sudden appearance of 
someone with social authority changes the context entirely. Online, 
this becomes more difficult. As Summer, a white fifteen-year-old 
from Michigan, explains, switching contexts online is more challeng- 
ing than doing so in the park because, in the park, "you can see when 
there's people around you and stuff like that. So you can like quickly 
change the subject." Online, there's no way to change the conversa- 
tion, both because it's virtually impossible to know if someone is 
approaching and because the persistent nature of most social 
exchanges means that there's a record of what was previously said. 
Thus, when Summer's mother looks at her Facebook page, she gains 

identity 33 

access to a plethora of interactions that took place over a long period 
of time and outside the social and temporal context in which they 
were produced. Summer can't simply switch topics with her friends at 
the sight of her mother approaching. The ability to easily switch con- 
texts assumes an ephemeral social situation; this cannot be taken for 
granted in digital environments. 

Because social media often brings together multiple social con- 
texts, teens struggle to effectively manage social norms. Some expect 
their friends and family to understand and respect different social 
contexts and to know when something is not meant for them. And 
yet there are always people who fail to recognize when content isn't 
meant for them, even though it's publicly accessible. This is the prob- 
lem that Hunter faces when he posts to Facebook. 

Hunter is a geeky, black fourteen-year-old living in inner-city Wash- 
ington, DC, who resembles a contemporary Steve Urkel, complete with 
ill-fitting clothes, taped-together glasses, and nerdy mannerisms. He 
lives in two discrete worlds. His cousins and sister are what he describes 
as "ghetto" while his friends at his magnet school are all academically 
minded "geeks." On Facebook, these two worlds collide, and he regu- 
larly struggles to navigate them simultaneously. He gets especially frus- 
trated when his sister interrupts conversations with his friends. 

When I'm talking to my friends on Facebook or I put up a sta- 
tus, something I hate is when people who I'm not addressing in 
my statuses comment on my statuses. In [my old school], people 
always used to call me nerdy and that I was the least black black 
person that they've ever met, some people say that, and I said 
on Facebook, "Should I take offense to the fact that somebody 
put the ringtone 'White and Nerdy' for me?" and it was a joke. 
I guess we were talking about it in school, and [my sister] comes 
out of nowhere, "Aw, baby bro," and I'm like, "No, don't say 
that, I wasn't talking to you." 

When I asked Hunter how his sister or friends are supposed to know 
who is being talked to on specific Facebook updates, he replied, 

34 identity 

I guess that is a point. Sometimes it probably is hard, but I think 
it's just the certain way that you talk. I will talk to my sister 
a different way than I'll talk to my friends at school or from 
my friends from my old school, and I might say, "Oh, well, I 
fell asleep in Miss K's class by accident," and they'll say, "Oh, 
yeah, Miss K is so boring," and [my sister's] like, "Oh, well, you 
shouldn't fall asleep. You should pay attention." I mean, I think 
you can figure out that I'm not talking to you if I'm talking about 
a certain teacher. 

Hunter loves his sister, but he also finds her take on social etiquette 
infuriating. He wants to maintain a relationship with her and appre- 
ciates that she's on Facebook, although he also notes that it's 
hard because of her priorities, values, and decisions. He doesn't want 
to ostracize her on Facebook, but he's consistently annoyed by 
how often she tries to respond to messages from his friends without 
realizing that this violates an implicit code of conduct. 

To make matters worse, Hunter's sister is not the only one from his 
home life who he feels speaks up out of turn. Hunter and his friends 
are really into the card game Pokemon and what he calls "old skool" 
video games like the Legend of Zelda. His cousins, in contrast, enjoy 
first-person shooters like Halo and think his choice of retro video 
games is "lame." Thus, whenever Hunter posts messages about play- 
ing with his friends, his cousins use this as an opportunity to mock 
him. Frustrated by his family members' inability to "get the hint," 
Hunter has resorted both to limiting what he says online and trying 
to use technical features provided by Facebook to create discrete lists 
and block certain people from certain posts. Having to take measures 
to prevent his family from seeing what he posts saddens him because 
he doesn't want to hide; he only wants his family to stop "embarrass- 
ing" him. Context matters to Hunter, not because he's ashamed of 
his tastes or wants to hide his passions, but because he wants to have 
control over a given social situation. He wants to post messages with- 
out having to articulate context; he wants his audience to understand 

identity 35 

where he's coming from and respect what he sees as unspoken social 
conventions. Without a shared sense of context, hanging out online 
becomes burdensome. 

The ability to understand and define social context is important. 
When teens are talking to their friends, they interact differently than 
when they're talking to their family or to their teachers. Television 
show plotlines leverage the power of collapsed contexts for entertain- 
ment purposes, but managing them in everyday life is often exhaust- 
ing. It may be amusing to watch Kramer face embarrassment when 
he and George accidentally run into Kramer's mother on Seinfeld, 
but such social collisions are not nearly as entertaining when they 
occur without a laugh track. 7 Situations like this require significant 
monitoring and social negotiation, which, in turn, require both stra- 
tegic and tactical decisions that turn the most mundane social situa- 
tion into a high-maintenance affair. Most people are uncomfortable 
with the idea that their worlds might collide uncontrollably, and yet, 
social media makes this dynamic a regular occurrence. Much of 
what's at stake has to do with the nuanced ways in which people read 
social situations and present themselves accordingly. 

Identity Work in Networked Publics 

In her 1995 book, Life on the Screen, psychologist Sherry Turkle 
began to map out the creation of a mediated future that resembled 
both the Utopian and dystopian immersive worlds constructed in sci- 
ence fiction novels. Watching early adopters — especially children — 
embrace virtual worlds, she argued that the distinction between 
computers and humans was becoming increasingly blurred and that a 
new society was emerging as people escaped the limitations of their 
offline identities. Turkle was particularly fascinated by the playful 
identity work that early adopters engaged in online, and with a psy- 
choanalyst's eye, she extensively considered both the therapeutic and 
the deceptive potential of mediated identity work. 8 

Turkle was critical of some people's attempts to use fictitious iden- 
tities to harm others, but she also highlighted that much could be 

36 identity 

gained from the process of self-reflection that was enabled when peo- 
ple had to act out or work through their identity in order to make 
themselves present in virtual worlds. Unlike face-to-face settings in 
which people took their bodies for granted, people who went online 
had to consciously create their digital presence. Media studies scholar 
Jenny Sunden describes this process as people typing themselves 
into being. 9 Although Turkle recognized that a person's identity 
was always tethered to his or her psyche, she left room for arguments 
that suggested that the internet could — and would — free people of 
the burdens of their "material" — or physically embodied — identities, 
enabling them to become a better version of themselves. 

I wanted Turkle 's vision for the future to be right. When I embraced 
the internet as a teenager in the mid-1990s, I was going online to 
escape the so-called real world. I felt ostracized and misunderstood at 
school, but online I could portray myself as the person that I wanted 
to be. I took on fictitious identities in an effort to figure out who 
I was. I wasn't alone. Part of what made chatting fun in those days 
was that it was impossible to know if others were all that they por- 
trayed themselves to be. I knew that a self-declared wizard was prob- 
ably not actually a wizard and that the guy who said he had found 
the cure to cancer most likely hadn't, but embodied characteristics 
like gender and race weren't always so clear. 10 At the time, this felt 
playful and freeing, and I bought into the fantasy that the internet 
could save us from tyranny and hypocrisy. Manifestos like John 
Perry Barlow's 1996 "Declaration of the Independence of Cyber- 
space" spoke to me. Barlow told the global leaders at the World Eco- 
nomic Forum that the new "home of the Mind" enabled "identities 
[that] have no bodies." I was proud to be one of the children he spoke 
of who appeared "native" in the new civilization. 

Twenty years later, the dynamics of identity portrayal online 
are quite different from how early internet proponents imagined 
them to be. Although gaming services and virtual worlds are popular 
among some groups of youth, there's a significant cultural difference 
between fictional role-playing sites and the more widely embraced 

identity 37 

social media sites, which tend to encourage a more nonfiction- 
oriented atmosphere. Even though pseudonymity is quite common 
in these environments, the type of identity work taking place on 
social media sites like Facebook is very different from what Turkle 
initially imagined. Many teens today go online to socialize with 
friends they know from physical settings and to portray themselves 
in online contexts that are more tightly wedded to unmediated social 
communities. These practices, which encourage greater continuity 
between teens' online and offline worlds, were much less common 
when I was growing up. 

This doesn't mean that identity work is uniform across all online 
activities. Most teens use a plethora of social media services as they 
navigate relationships and contexts. Their seemingly distinct prac- 
tices on each platform might suggest that they are trying to be differ- 
ent people, but this would be a naive reading of the kinds of identity 
work taking place on and through social media. For example, a teen 
might use her given name on a video service like Skype while choos- 
ing a descriptive screen name on a photo app like Instagram. 11 And 
when choosing a login for a blogging site like Tumblr, she might 
choose a name that intentionally signals her involvement with a par- 
ticular interest-based community. 

Quite often, teens respond to what they perceive to be the norms 
of a particular service. So when a teen chooses to identify as "Jessica 
Smith" on Facebook and "littlemonster" on Twitter, she's not creat- 
ing multiple identities in the psychological sense. She's choosing to 
represent herself in different ways on different sites with the expecta- 
tion of different audiences and different norms. Sometimes these 
choices are conscious attempts by individuals seeking to control 
their self-presentation; more often, they are whimsical responses to 
sites' requirement to provide a login handle. Although some teens 
choose to use the same handle across multiple sites, other teens find 
that their favorite nickname is taken or feel as though they've out- 
grown their previous identity. Regardless of the reason, the outcome 
is a hodgepodge of online identities that leave plenty of room for 

38 identity 

interpretation. And in doing so, teens both interpret and produce the 
social contexts in which they are inhabiting. 

Context matters. While teens move between different social con- 
texts — including mediated ones like those produced by networked 
publics and unmediated ones like those constructed at school — they 
manage social dynamics differently. How they interact and with 
whom they interact in the school lunchroom is different than 
at afterschool music lessons than via group text messaging services. 
For many of the teens I interviewed, Facebook was the primary 
place where friend groups collide. Other services — like Tumblr or 
Twitter — were more commonly used by teens who were carving out 
their place in interest-driven communities. 11 For example, there are 
entire communities of teens on Tumblr who connect out of a shared 
interest in fashion; collectively, they produce a rich fashion blogging 
community that has stunned the fashion industry. On Twitter, it's 
not uncommon to see teens gushing about the celebrities du jour 
with other fans. These examples illustrate how these particular plat- 
forms are used circa 2013; teens' approaches to different sites may 
have changed by the time you're reading this book, but managing 
context within a given site and through the use of multiple sites has 
been commonplace for well over a decade. What matters is not the 
particular social media site but the context in which it's situated 
within a particular group of youth. The sites of engagement come 
and go, are repurposed, and evolve over time. Some people assume 
that these ebbs and flows mean radical changes in youth culture, but 
often the underlying practices stay the same even as the context shifts 
what is rendered visible and significant. 

The context of a particular site is not determined by the technical 
features of that site but, rather, by the interplay between teens and 
the site. In sociological parlance, the context of social media sites is 
socially constructed. 13 More practically, what this means is that teens 
turn to different sites because they hear that a particular site is good 
for a given practice. They connect to people they know, observe how 
those people are using the site, and then reinforce or challenge those 

identity 39 

norms through their own practices. As a result, the norms of social 
media are shaped by network effects; peers influence one another 
about how to use a particular site and then help collectively to create 
the norms of that site. 

Because teens' engagement with social media is tied to their broader 
peer groups, the norms that get reinforced online do not deviate 
much from the norms that exist in school. This does not mean that 
there aren't distinctions. For example, I met a teen girl who was 
obsessed with a popular boy band called One Direction even though 
her friends at school were not. She didn't bother talking about 
her crush on one of the band's members in the lunchroom because 
she knew her friends wouldn't find such a topic interesting. She 
didn't hide her passion for One Direction from her friends, but 
she didn't turn to them to discuss the band members' haircuts or 
their latest music video. Instead, she turned to Twitter, where she 
was able to gush about the band with other fans. She first turned to 
Twitter because the members of One Direction were using that plat- 
form to engage with their fans, but as she engaged with the broader 
fan community, she spent more time talking with other fans than 
replying to the musicians' tweets. Through this fan community, 
she began interacting on Tumblr and posting fan-oriented posts on 
Instagram. Her friends all knew about her obsession — and occasion- 
ally teased her for her celebrity crush — but they didn't follow her on 
Twitter because they weren't interested in that facet of her life. She 
wasn't hiding her interests, but she had created a separate context — 
and thus a separate digital persona — for talking with fellow fans. 
When she wanted to talk with her school friends, she turned to Face- 
book or text messaging. At the same time, the contexts were not 
wholly distinct. When she found out that one of her classmates 
was also a fellow fan, they started engaging on both Facebook and 
Twitter, talking about school on Facebook and One Direction on 
Twitter. And she even ended up Facebook friending a few fans she 
met through Twitter, which created a space for them to talk about a 
different range of topics. 

40 identity 

This young fan is a typical savvy internet user, comfortable navi- 
gating her identity and interests in distinct social contexts based on 
her understanding of the norms and community practices. She moves 
between Facebook and Twitter seamlessly, understanding that they 
are different social contexts. She has a coherent understanding of 
who she is and is comfortable choosing how she presents herself in 
these different environments. She moves just as seamlessly between 
these mediated environments as she does between online and offline 
settings, not because she's cycling through identities — or creating a 
segmentation between the virtual and the real — but because she's 
switching social contexts and acting accordingly. 

As teens move between different social environments — and inter- 
act with different groups of friends, interest groups, and classmates — 
they maneuver between different contexts that they have collectively 
built and socially constructed. Their sense of context is shaped — but 
not cleanly defined — by setting, time, and audience. Although navi- 
gating distinct social contexts is not new, technology makes it easy 
for young people to move quickly between different social settings, 
creating the impression that they are present in multiple places simul- 
taneously. What unfolds is a complex dance as teens quickly shift 
between — and often blur — different social contexts. 

The popularity of social media in recent years has produced a sig- 
nificant rise in nonfiction or so-called real names identity produc- 
tion, but it is also important to recognize that there continue to be 
environments where teens gather anonymously or don crafted identi- 
ties to create a separation between the kinds of social contexts that 
are viable offline and those that can be imagined online. Most nota- 
bly, multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and StarCraft 
were quite popular among youth I encountered. It is within these 
spaces — along with virtual worlds like Second Life and Whyville — 
where teens can and do engage in much of the playful and productive 
identity work that early internet scholars initially mapped out. 14 The 
process of creating an avatar and selecting virtual characteristics 
requires tremendous reflection, and teens often take this seriously. 

identity 41 

Although some teens do invest a great deal of time and thought 
into their avatars, other teens I met were no more invested in their 
gaming character than in their Twitter handle. Their choices had 
meaning and were valuable, but not something that they felt needed 
to be analyzed for significance. When I asked one teen boy why he 
had chosen to be a particular character in World of Warcraft, he 
looked at me with a scrunched face. I pressed on to ask if his choice 
had any particular meaning, and he responded with an eye roll, say- 
ing, "It's just a game!" before continuing on to talk about how he had 
a collection of characters with different skill sets that could be used 
depending on what he was trying to achieve in the game. 

Choosing and designing an avatar is a central part of participation 
in immersive games and virtual worlds, but youth approach this 
practice in extraordinarily varied ways. Some teens purposefully con- 
struct their avatars in ways that they feel reflect their physical bodies; 
other teens choose characters based on skills or aesthetics. For some 
teens, being "in world" is discrete from their school environment, 
whereas others game with classmates. It may seem that the role- 
playing elements of these environments imply a significant separation 
between the virtual and the real; however, these often get blurred in 
fantasy game worlds as well. 15 

Alongside the identity work done within common social media 
sites and wildly popular gaming services, a subculture has emerged in 
which participants outright eschew recognizable identity altogether 
by proclaiming the virtues of anonymity. Nowhere is this more visible 
than in the community of individuals who participate in and contrib- 
ute to the image-based bulletin board site 4chan. 4chan was initially 
created in 2003 by a fifteen-year-old named Chris Poole, known as 
"moot," so that he could share pornography and anime with other 
teens. 16 Often referred to as the underbelly of the internet, 4chan is an 
active source of internet cultural production as well as malicious 
prankster activity. It is the birthplace of popular memes such as lol- 
cats: often entertaining, widely distributed pictures of cats portrayed 
with text captions written in Impact font using an internet dialect 

42 identity 

referred to as lolspeak. 17 4chan is also where Anonymous — the "hack- 
tivist" group mostly known for a series of well-publicized political 
actions — originated. 18 Although it's impossible to know much about 
the site's contributors, the content typically shared on the site reflects 
tastes and humor usually associated with teenage boys. 

The reason it's hard to get a handle on who participates on 4chan is 
that most of the content produced on the site is shared anonymously. 
As I met teen boys who contributed to 4chan, I found that many of 
them relished the anonymous norms of the site. They felt that ano- 
nymity gave them a sense of freedom they didn't feel they could have 
on sites for which constructing an identity — pseudonymous or "real" — 
was more typical. Some admitted to using this freedom in problematic 
or destructive ways — recounting acts of ganging up on girls whom 
they deemed annoying or using a combination of wits and trickery to 
manipulate Facebook administrators into providing data. But more 
often than not, teens talked about wanting to have a space where they 
weren't constantly scrutinized by adults and peers. By becoming anon- 
ymous and being an invisible part of a crowd, these teens knew that 
they weren't building a reputation within the site. Yet even when they 
weren't being personally recognized, many relished seeing their posts 
get traction and attention within the site; this made them feel part of 
the community. Furthermore, extensive use of in-group language and 
shared references made it easy to identify other members of 4chan, 
thereby enabling another mechanism of status and community. 19 

As teens have embraced a plethora of social environments and helped 
co-create the norms that underpin them, a wide range of practices has 
emerged. Teens have grown sophisticated with how they manage con- 
texts and present themselves in order to be read by their intended audi- 
ence. They don't always succeed, but their efforts are phenomenal. 

Crafting a Profile, Creating an Identity Performance 

Chris was ecstatic when his sixteen-year-old daughter invited 
him to be her friend on MySpace during the height of the MySpace 
craze. He had decided not to require that she befriend him on social 

identity 43 

network sites, so he saw her invitation as a signal of trust and love. He 
immediately accepted the friend request and logged in to look at her 
private profile. His heart sank. About halfway down the page, there 
was a panel with a question, "What Drug Are You?" followed by a 
picture of a white substance on a mirror with a rolled-up dollar bill; 
the text below said, "Cocaine." Trying not to panic, he approached 
his daughter quizzically. She responded with laughter, followed by a 
drawn-out, "Daaaaad." She explained that what he'd seen was a quiz. 
Quizzes were all the rage in her school, and this one was currently 
making its rounds. She explained that whenever there were quizzes, 
you could easily guess where the quiz was going and answer so that 
you could get the result you wanted. This did not give Chris any 
sense of relief, but he reserved judgment and hesitantly asked why she 
wanted to get cocaine as the result. She proceeded to explain that the 
kids who smoked marijuana at school were "lame," while those who 
took mushrooms were "crazy." And then she explained, "But your 
generation did a lot of cocaine and you came out OK!" Chris burst 
out laughing, humored by how she perceived him and his peers. He 
had grown up in a rural white Midwestern community where alcohol 
and teen pregnancy dominated. Indeed, Chris was only sixteen years 
older than his daughter. After high school, he had gotten involved in 
the music scene, but being a single father left little room for partying. 
Cocaine was not part of his youth at all. Chris then grew serious and 
asked if she was interested in cocaine; he felt relieved by her exasper- 
ated rejection of this idea, and they proceeded to have a long conver- 
sation about how an onlooker could easily take what seemed like a 
funny quiz out of context. 

Many teens post information on social media that they think 
is funny or intended to give a particular impression to a narrow audi- 
ence without considering how this same content might be read out of 
context. Much of what seems like inaccurate identity information is 
simply a misinterpretation of a particular act of self-presentation. 
This issue was particularly noticeable in early social media genres in 
which explicit identity information was required for participation. 

44 identity 

Consider, for example, MySpace, which required a user to provide 
age, sex, location, and other fields to create a profile. 

When I stumbled on Allies MySpace profile, I learned from the 
demographic section that she is ninety-five years old, from Christmas 
Island, and makes $250,000+ per year. While it is possible that she is 
nearly a centenarian and logging onto MySpace from a remote, sparsely 
populated island in the Indian Ocean while running her highly profit- 
able company, this seems unlikely. A quick glance at the rest of Allies 
profile reveals other information that suggests that she is more likely to 
be a teenage girl attending high school in New Jersey. Her photo album 
includes self-portraits, photographs of Allie with friends, and images of 
teens goofing around. The majority of her friends indicate that they're 
from New Jersey, and the high school she lists on her profile is also 
located in that state. The comments on her profile included messages 
about homework and parents. I don't know Allie, but I doubt that she 
is trying to deceive me with demographic outliers. 

I met many teens who fabricated answers like name, location, age, 
and income to profile questions. They thought it was amusing to 
indicate their relationship status on Facebook as "It's Complicated" 
whether they were in a relationship or not. A casual viewer scanning 
Facebook might conclude that an extraordinary number of teens are 
in same-sex relationships because so many have chosen to list their 
best friend as the person that they are "In a Relationship" with. In the 
same vein, Facebook profiles suggest that the US census data must be 
inaccurate because, at least on Facebook, teens often have dozens of 
siblings; of course, a little bit of prying makes it clear that these, too, 
are close friends. These are but a few of the playful ways in which 
teens responded to social media sites' requests for information by 
providing inaccurate information that actually contains meaningful 
signals about friendship and sociality. 

When I talked with teens, I learned that there were also numerous 
ways of repurposing social network site fields for entertainment and 
humor. Outside of wealthy communities, where talking about money 
is deemed gauche, I met countless teens who told MySpace that their 

identity 45 

income was "$250,000+." Choosing a birth year that made the age 
field depict "69" was also a common, if unsurprising, trend among 
teenage boys. 10 Searching for social media users in Afghanistan or 
Zimbabwe offers an additional window into teen life, as many teens 
select the top or bottom choice in the pull- down menu when they 
indicate their location. Facebook expected users to provide "real 
names," but many teens I met offered up only their first name, prefer- 
ring to select a last name of a celebrity, fictional character, or friend. 
These were but a few of the ways that teens provided what appeared to 
be fictitious information on their profiles. These practices allowed 
them to feel control over their profiles, particularly given how often 
they told me that it was ridiculous for sites to demand this information. 

One way of reading teens' profiles is to assume that they are lying. 
But marking oneself as rich or from a foreign land is not about decep- 
tion; it's a simple way to provide entertaining signals to friends while 
ignoring a site's expectations. 21 Most teens aren't enacting an imag- 
ined identity in a virtual world. Instead, they're simply refusing to 
play by the rules of self-presentation as defined by these sites. 22 They 
see no reason to provide accurate information, in part because they 
know that most people who are reading what they post already know 
who they are. As Dominic, a white sixteen-year-old from Seattle, told 
me, he doesn't have to provide accurate information "because all my 
[social media] friends are actually my friends; they'll know if I'm jok- 
ing around or not." Awareness of the social context helps shape what 
teens share and don't share. Many teens treat social media requests 
for information as a recommendation, not a requirement, because 
they view these sites purely as platforms for interacting with class- 
mates and other people they know from other settings. 

Why teens share what they do is neither arbitrary nor dictated by 
the social media sites where they hang out — nor by the norms that 
govern adults' use of those same sites. The youth- oriented social con- 
text in which teens share matters. Teens don't see social media as a 
virtual space in which they must choose to be themselves or create an 
alternate ego. They see social media as a place to gather with friends 

46 identity 

while balancing privacy and safety with humor and image. When Los 
Angeles— based Chicano fifteen-year-old Mickey says, "It's not that I 
lie on [MySpace] , but I don't put my real information," he's highlight- 
ing that his choice to provide false data allows him to control the 
social situation. He doesn't want to be easily searchable by his parents 
or teachers, nor does he want to be found by "creeps" who might be 
browsing the site looking for vulnerable teenagers. He wants to be in 
a space with friends, and so he provides just enough information that 
his friends can find him without increasing his visibility to adults. 

Teens fabricate information because it's funny, because they believe 
that the site has no reason to ask, or because they believe that doing 
so will limit their visibility to people they don't want to find them. In 
doing so, they are seeking to control the networked social context. 

When teens create profiles through social media, they are simulta- 
neously navigating extraordinarily public environments and more 
intimate friendship spaces. Media scholars Paul Hodkinson and Sian 
Lincoln argue that constructing these profiles can be understood 
through the lens of "bedroom culture." 23 Just as many middle-class 
teens use different media artifacts — including photographs, posters, 
and tchotchkes — to personalize their bedrooms, teens often decorate 
their online self-presentations using a variety of media. Likewise, 
teens use their bedrooms to create a space for hanging out with 
friends and they turn to social media to do the same online. Yet 
because of the properties of social media, creating boundaries around 
these online spaces is far more difficult. Although teens complain 
about the impossibility of keeping siblings and parents out of their 
rooms, achieving privacy in social media is even harder. This, in 
turn, challenges teens' ability to meaningfully portray the nuances of 
who they are to different and conflicting audiences. 

Impression Management in a Networked Setting 

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving 
Goffman describes the social rituals involved in self-presentation as 
"impression management." He argues that the impressions we make 

identity 47 

on others are a product of what is given and what is given off 
In other words, what we convey to others is a matter of what we 
choose to share in order to make a good impression and also what we 
unintentionally reveal as a byproduct of who we are and how we react 
to others. The norms, cultural dynamics, and institutions where 
giving and giving off happen help define the broader context of 
how these performances are understood. When interpreting others' 
self-presentations, we read the explicit content that is conveyed in 
light of the implicit information that is given off and the context in 
which everything takes place. The tension between the explicit and 
implicit signals allows us to obtain much richer information about 
individuals' attempts to shape how they're perceived. Of course, our 
reactions to their attempts to impress us enable them to adjust what 
they give in an attempt to convey what they think is best. 

Based on their understanding of the social situation — including 
the context and the audience — people make decisions about what to 
share in order to act appropriately for the situation and to be per- 
ceived in the best light. When young people are trying to get a sense 
of the context in which they're operating, they're doing so in order to 
navigate the social situation in front of them. They may want to be 
seen as cool among their peers, even if adults would deem their behav- 
ior inappropriate. 24 Teens may be trying to determine if someone 
they're attracted to is interested in them without embarrassing them- 
selves. Or they may wish to be viewed as confident and happy, even 
when they're facing serious depression or anxiety. Whatever they're 
trying to convey, they must first get a grasp of the situation and the 
boundaries of the context. When contexts collapse or when informa- 
tion is taken out of context, teens can fail to make their intended 

Self-presentations are never constructed in a void. Goffman writes at 
length about the role individuals play in shaping their self-presentations, 
but he also highlights ways in which individuals are part of broader 
collectives that convey impressions about the whole group. In discuss- 
ing the importance of "teams" for impression management, he points 

48 identity 

out that people work together to shape impressions, often relying on 
shared familiarity to help define any given situation in a mutually 
agreeable manner. He also argues that, "any member of the team has 
the power to give the show away or to disrupt it by inappropriate con- 
duct." 15 When teens create profiles online, they're both individuals and 
part of a collective. Their self-representation is constructed through 
what they explicitly provide, through what their friends share, and as 
a product of how other people respond to them. When Alice's friend 
Bob comments on her profile, he's affecting her self-presentation. Even 
the photo that Bob chooses as his primary photo affects Alice because 
it might be shown on Alice's profile when he leaves a comment. 26 
Impression management online and off is not just an individual act; 
it's a social process. 

Part of what makes impression management in a networked set- 
ting so tricky is that the contexts in which teens are operating are also 
networked. Contexts don't just collapse accidentally; they collapse 
because individuals have a different sense of where the boundaries 
exist and how their decisions affect others. In North Carolina, I 
briefly chatted with a black high school senior who was gunning for 
a soccer scholarship at a Division One school. When recruiters and 
coaches from different schools asked to be his friend on Facebook, he 
immediately said yes. He had always treated Facebook like a resume, 
using the site to position himself as a thoughtful, compassionate, 
all-American young man. But he was often concerned about what his 
friends posted on Facebook, and for good reason. 

A few days later, I was talking casually with Matthew, one of the 
soccer player's classmates with whom he was friends on Facebook. 
Unlike the all-American athlete persona his classmate had crafted, 
Matthew's profile was filled with crass comments and humor that 
could easily be misinterpreted. I asked Matthew, a white seventeen- 
year-old, about his decision to post these items on his profile with a 
particular eye to how they might get misinterpreted if read by a 
stranger. Matthew told me that he wasn't friends with anyone who 
didn't know him and wouldn't understand that he was joking around. 

identity 49 

I pointed out that his privacy settings meant that his profile could be 
viewed by friends-of-friends. When he didn't get my point, I showed 
him that his classmate had chosen to connect with many coaches and 
other representatives from schools to which he had applied for admis- 
sion. Matthew's stunned response was simple: "But why would he do 
that?" Matthew and his classmate had very different ideas of how to 
use Facebook and who their imagined audiences might be, but their 
online presence was interconnected because of the technical affor- 
dances of Facebook. They were each affecting the other's attempts at 
self-presentation, and their sharing and friending norms created 
unexpected conflicts. 

Even when teens have a coherent sense of what they deem to be 
appropriate in a particular setting, their friends and peers do not nec- 
essarily share their sense of decorum and norms. Resolving the net- 
worked nature of social contexts is complicated. The "solution" that is 
most frequently offered is that people should not try to engage in 
context-dependent impression management. Indeed, Mark Zucker- 
berg, the founder of Facebook, is quoted as having said, "Having two 
identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." 27 Teens who 
try to manage context collapses by segregating information often suf- 
fer when that information crosses boundaries. This is particularly true 
when teens, like the young man from Los Angeles at the beginning of 
this chapter, are forced to contend with radically different social con- 
texts that are not mutually resolvable. What makes this especially 
tricky for teens is that people who hold power over them often believe 
that they have the right to look, judge, and share, even when their 
interpretations may be constructed wholly out of context. 

In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union received a complaint 
from a student at a small, rural high school that sheds light on this 
issue. At a school assembly, in order to set an example, a campus 
police officer had shown a photo of one of the students holding a 
beer. 28 The picture was not on that girl's Facebook profile; it was 
posted by a friend of hers and tagged. The purpose of the assembly 
was to teach teenagers about privacy, but the students were outraged. 

50 identity 

Because of the police officer's attempt to shame students into 
behaving by adult standards, the student exposed with a beer 
feared that she would not receive a local scholarship or might face 
other serious consequences. To complicate matters, she had not cho- 
sen to present herself in that light; her friend had done this for her. In 
choosing to upload and tag this photo, her friend undermined the 
self-image that the girl wished to present. Some may argue that this 
girl was at fault for being at a party holding a beer in the first place. 
She may indeed have been drinking the beer — 72 percent of students 
in high school report having had alcohol at least once — but she may 
also just have been holding the beer for a friend or simply trying to fit 
in by appearing to drink. 19 This girl certainly did not think that her 
decision to attend that party would result in such public shaming, 
nor is it clear that the punishment fits the crime. In situations like 
this, teens are blamed for not thinking while adults assert the right 
to define the context in which young people interact. They take con- 
tent out of context to interpret it through the lens of adults' values 
and feel as though they have the right to shame youth because that 
content was available in the first place. In doing so, they ignore 
teens' privacy while undermining their struggles to manage their 

One might reasonably argue that the girl holding the beer was 
lucky not to have been arrested, since alcohol consumption by minors 
is illegal. Yet it is important to note that the same shaming tactics 
that adults use to pressure teens to conform to adult standards are 
also used by both teens and adults to ostracize and punish youth 
whose identities, values, or experiences are not widely accepted. I met 
plenty of teens who wanted to keep secrets from their parents or 
teachers, but the teens who struggled the most with the challenges of 
collapsed contexts were those who were trying to make sense of their 
sexual identity or who otherwise saw themselves as outcasts in their 
community. Some, like Hunter — the boy from DC who was trying 
to navigate his "ghetto" family alongside his educationally minded 
friends — were simply frustrated and annoyed. Others, like teen girls 

identity 51 

who are the subject of "slut shaming" were significantly embarrassed 
and emotionally distraught after photos taken in the context of an 
intimate relationship were widely shared to shame them by using 
their sexuality as a weapon. Still others, like the lesbian, gay, bisexual, 
and transgender (LGBT) teens I met from religious and conservative 
backgrounds, were outright scared of what would happen if the con- 
texts in which they were trying to operate collapsed. 

In Iowa, I ended up casually chatting with a teen girl who was 
working through her sexuality. She had found a community of other 
queer girls in a chatroom, and even though she believed that some of 
them weren't who they said they were, she found their anonymous 
advice to be helpful. They gave her pointers to useful websites about 
coming out, offered stories from their own experiences, and gave 
her the number of an LGBT-oriented hotline if she ran into any dif- 
ficulty coming out to her conservative parents. Although she relished 
the support and validation these strangers gave her, she wasn't ready 
to come out yet, and she was petrified that her parents might come 
across her online chats. She was also concerned that some of her 
friends from school might find out and tell her parents. She had 
learned that her computer recorded her browser history in middle 
school when her parents had used her digital traces to punish her for 
visiting inappropriate sites. Thus, she carefully erased her history 
after each visit to the chatroom. She didn't understand how Face- 
book seemed to follow her around the web, but she was afraid that 
somehow the company would find out and post the sites she visited 
to her Facebook page. In an attempt to deal with this, she used Inter- 
net Explorer to visit the chatroom or anything that was LGBT-related 
while turning to the Chrome browser for maintaining her straight, 
school-friendly persona. But still, she was afraid that she'd mess up 
and collapse her different social contexts, accidentally coming out 
before she was ready. She wanted to maintain discrete contexts but 
found it extraordinarily difficult to do so. This tension comes up over 
and over again, particularly with youth who are struggling to make 
sense of who they are and how they fit into the broader world. 30 

52 identity 

As teens struggle to make sense of different social contexts and 
present themselves appropriately, one thing becomes clear: the inter- 
net has not evolved into an idyllic zone in which people are free from 
the limitations of the embodied world. Teens are struggling to make 
sense of who they are and how they fit into society in an environment 
in which contexts are networked and collapsed, audiences are invisi- 
ble, and anything they say or do can easily be taken out of context. 
They are grappling with battles that adults face, but they are doing so 
while under constant surveillance and without a firm grasp of who 
they are. In short, they're navigating one heck of a cultural labyrinth. 

identity 53 

2 privacy 

why do youth share 
so publicly? 

Many teens feel as though they're in a no-win situation when it comes 
to sharing information online: damned if they publish their personal 
thoughts to public spaces, and damned if they create private space 
that parents can't see. Parent-teen battles about privacy have gone on 
for decades. Parents complain when teens demand privacy by asking 
their parents to stay out of their bedroom, to refrain from listening in 
on their phone conversations, and to let them socialize with their 
friends without being chaperoned. In the same breath, these same 
parents express frustration when teens wear ill-fitting clothes or 
skimpy outfits. They have long seen revealing clothing as an indica- 
tor of teens' rejection of privacy. In other words, common and long- 
standing teen practices have historically been sure signs of teens' 
unhealthy obsession with, or rejection of, privacy. 

Social media has introduced a new dimension to the well-worn 
fights over private space and personal expression. Teens do not want 
their parents to view their online profiles or look over their shoulder 
when they're chatting with friends. Parents are no longer simply wor- 
ried about what their children wear out of the house but what they 
photograph themselves wearing in their bedroom to post online. 
Interactions that were previously invisible to adults suddenly have 
traces, prompting parents to fret over conversations that adults deem 
inappropriate or when teens share "TMI" (too much information). 


While my childhood included "Keep Out" bedroom signs and bat- 
tles over leather miniskirts and visible bras, the rise of the internet has 
turned fights over privacy and exposure into headline news for an 
entire cohort of youth. 

Teens often grow frustrated with adult assumptions that suggest 
that they are part of a generation that has eschewed privacy in order 
to participate in social media. In North Carolina, I asked "Waffles" 
about this issue, and he responded with exasperation. "Every teenager 
wants privacy. Every single last one of them, whether they tell you or 
not, wants privacy." Waffles is a geeky white seventeen-year- old teen 
who spends hours each day interacting with people through video 
games and engaging deeply in a wide variety of online communities. 
He balked at the idea that his participation in these networked pub- 
lics signals that he doesn't care about privacy. "Just because teenagers 
use internet sites to connect to other people doesn't mean they don't 
care about their privacy. We don't tell everybody every single thing 
about our lives. ... So to go ahead and say that teenagers don't like 
privacy is pretty ignorant and inconsiderate honestly, I believe, on the 
adults' part." Waffles articulated a sentiment that I usually saw 
expressed through an eye roll: teenagers, acutely aware of how many 
adults dismiss their engagement in social media, have little patience 
for adults' simplistic assumptions about teen privacy. 1 

Although teens grapple with managing their identity and navigat- 
ing youth-centric communities while simultaneously maintaining 
spaces for intimacy, they do so under the spotlight of a media ecosys- 
tem designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic, and new hyped 
technology. Each week, news stories lament the death of privacy, con- 
sistently referring to teen engagement with public social media ser- 
vices as proof of privacy's demise. 2 In her New York Magazine article 
describing people's willingness to express themselves publicly, Emily 
Nussbaum articulated a concern about youth that is widespread: 
"Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of 
privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons 
who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry — for 

privacy 55 

God's sake, their dirty photos! — online." 3 Throughout the United 
States, I heard this sentiment expressed in less eloquent terms by par- 
ents, teachers, and religious officials who were horrified by what teens 
were willing to share. They often approached me, genuinely worried 
about their children's future and unable to understand why anyone 
who cared about themselves and their privacy would be willing to be 
actively engaged online. 

The idea that teens share too much — and therefore don't care about 
privacy — is now so entrenched in public discourse that research 
showing that teens do desire privacy and work to get it is often ignored 
by the media. 4 Regardless of how many young people engage in pri- 
vacy practices, adults reference teens' public expressions as decisive 
evidence of contemporary teen immodesty and indecency. Mean- 
while, technology executives like Facebook's founder Mark Zucker- 
berg and Google chairman Eric Schmidt reinforce the notion that 
today's teens are different, arguing that social norms around privacy 
have changed in order to justify their own business decisions regard- 
ing user privacy. They cite youth's widespread engagement with social 
media as evidence that the era of privacy is over. 5 Journalists, parents, 
and technologists seem to believe that a willingness to share in public 
spaces — and, most certainly, any act of exhibitionism and publicity — 
is incompatible with a desire for personal privacy. 

The teens that I met genuinely care about their privacy, but how 
they understand and enact it may not immediately resonate or appear 
logical to adults. When teens — and, for that matter, most adults — 
seek privacy, they do so in relation to those who hold power over 
them. Unlike privacy advocates and more politically conscious adults, 
teens aren't typically concerned with governments and corporations. 
Instead, they're trying to avoid surveillance from parents, teachers, 
and other immediate authority figures in their lives. They want the 
right to be ignored by the people who they see as being "in their busi- 
ness." Teens are not particularly concerned about organizational 
actors; rather, they wish to avoid paternalistic adults who use safety 
and protection as an excuse to monitor their everyday sociality. 


Teens' desire for privacy does not undermine their eagerness to 
participate in public. There's a big difference between being in public 
and being public. Teens want to gather in public environments to 
socialize, but they don't necessarily want every vocalized expression 
to be publicized. Yet, because being in a networked public — unlike 
gathering with friends in a public park — often makes interactions 
more visible to adults, mere participation in social media can blur 
these two dynamics. At first blush, the desire to be in public and have 
privacy seems like a contradiction. But understanding how teens con- 
ceptualize privacy and navigate social media is key to understanding 
what privacy means in a networked world, a world in which negotiat- 
ing fuzzy boundaries is par for the course. Instead of signaling the 
end of privacy as we know it, teens' engagement with social media 
highlights the complex interplay between privacy and publicity in the 
networked world we all live in now. 6 

Navigating Conflicting Norms 

In 2006, seventeen-year- old Bly Lauritano -Werner wrote a piece 
for Youth Radio in which she explained what privacy meant to her. 7 
She recorded the segment with her mother in order to highlight the 
generational disconnect that was at the heart of her frustration. The 
radio piece that aired on National Public Radio reveals a tension 
between Bly and her mother over the boundaries that underpin pri- 
vacy. "My mom always uses the excuse about the Internet being 'pub- 
lic' when she defends herself. It's not like I do anything to be ashamed 
of, but a girl needs her privacy. I do online journals so I can commu- 
nicate with my friends, not so my mother could catch up on the latest 
gossip of my life." When Bly interviews her mother during the seg- 
ment, her mother claims that she has the right to look at what Bly 
posts. She argues that she should be able to look "because I have a 
connection with you. I'm your mom, but also I just feel like it would 
be more interesting to me than it would be to someone who didn't 
know you. . . . You publish it and it's for general viewing therefore 
I feel I'm part of the general public, so I can view it." Much to Bly's 

privacy 57 

frustration, her mother believes that she has the right to look precisely 
because the content is accessible to a broad audience, even though she 
knows that Bly doesn't want her mother among that audience. 

Although many adults believe that they have the right to consume 
any teen content that is functionally accessible, many teens disagree. 
For example, when I opened up the issue of teachers looking at stu- 
dents' Facebook profiles with African American fifteen-year-old 
Chantelle, she responded dismissively: "Why are they on my page? 
I wouldn't go to my teacher's page and look at their stuff, so why 
should they go on mine to look at my stuff?" She continued on to 
make it clear that she had nothing to hide while also reiterating the 
feeling that snooping teachers violated her sense of privacy. The issue 
for Chantelle — and many other teens — is more a matter of social 
norms and etiquette than technical access. 

Erving Goffman — the sociologist described in the previous chap- 
ter for his analysis of self-presentation — also wrote about the impor- 
tance of "civil inattention" in enabling people to respectfully negotiate 
others in public spaces. 8 For example, even when two people happen 
to be sitting across from each other on the subway, social norms dic- 
tate that they should not stare at each other or insert themselves into 
the other's conversations. Of course, people still do these things, but 
they also feel a social responsibility to avert their eyes and pretend 
that they cannot hear the conversation taking place. 9 What's at stake 
is not whether someone can listen in but whether one should. Eti- 
quette and politeness operate as a social force that challenges what's 
functionally possible. 

Although Bly and her mother do not find resolution in the three- 
minute radio segment, Bly accepts that there is nothing she can do to 
stop her mother from snooping. She concludes instead that journal- 
ing sites "are becoming lame" because parents are starting to create 
their own profiles and use these services to meet strangers, failing to 
recognize the hypocrisy in their advice about talking to strangers. 
Made in 2006, Bly's arguments are specific to the journaling site 
Livejournal, but I heard these same sentiments repeated over the 


years in reference to numerous other social media sites, especially 
Facebook. In 2012, when I asked teens who were early adopters of 
Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram why they preferred these services to 
Facebook, I heard a near-uniform response: "Because my parents 
don't know about it." The sites of practice change, but many teens get 
frustrated when adults "invade" teen-centric spaces, and so, in an 
attempt to achieve privacy, some move on to newer sites and apps to 
avoid parents and other adults. 

Although Bly's desire to seek freedom from her mother's gaze prompted 
her to leave a service she once enjoyed, the increasing popularity of social 
media — and the challenges brought on by multiple audiences — are 
forcing other teens to reconsider how they achieve privacy in networked 
publics more generally. Some are perennially searching for adult-free 
zones, but this cat-and-mouse game gets tiresome, especially when par- 
ents quickly catch on to the "new" site. Much to many adults' surprise, 
teens aren't looking to hide; they just want privacy. 10 As a result, many 
teens are developing innovative solutions to achieve privacy in public. To 
get there, they must grapple with the tools that are available to them, the 
norms that shape social practices, and their own agency. 

Achieving Privacy by Controlling the Social Situation 

Privacy is a complex concept without a clear definition." Supreme 
Court Justice Louis Brandeis described privacy as "the right to be let 
alone," while legal scholar Ruth Gavison describes privacy as a mea- 
sure of the access others have to you through information, attention, 
and physical proximity. 11 Taking a structuralist tactic, legal scholar 
Alan Westin argues that privacy is "the claim of individuals, groups, 
or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what 
extent information about them is communicated to others." 1 ' These 
different — but related — definitions highlight control over access and 
visibility. Although the failure to reach consensus on a definition of 
privacy may be frustrating to some, legal scholar Daniel Solove argues 
that each approach to privacy reveals insight into how we manage 
privacy in everyday life. 14 

privacy 59 

Public discourse around privacy often centers on hiding or opting 
out of public environments, whereas scholars and engineers often 
focus more on controlling the flow of information. These can both be 
helpful ways of thinking about privacy, but as philosopher Helen Nis- 
senbaum astutely notes, privacy is always rooted in context. 15 Much of 
the scholarly conversation around privacy focuses on whether or not 
someone has — or has lost — privacy. Yet, for the teens that I inter- 
viewed, privacy isn't necessarily something that they have; rather it is 
something they are actively and continuously trying to achieve in 
spite of structural or social barriers that make it difficult to do so. 
Achieving privacy requires more than simply having the levers to 
control information, access, or visibility. Instead, achieving privacy 
requires the ability to control the social situation by navigating com- 
plex contextual cues, technical affordances, and social dynamics. 
Achieving privacy is an ongoing process because social situations are 
never static. Especially in networked publics, the persistent, search- 
able nature of interactions complicates any temporal boundaries. 
Comments written weeks ago can easily be fodder for current dra- 
mas, and it's often difficult to discern when a conversation starts and 
ends in an asynchronous texting channel. 

Controlling a social situation in an effort to achieve privacy is nei- 
ther easy nor obvious. Doing so requires power, knowledge, and skills. 
First, people must have a certain degree of agency or power within a 
social situation, which means that they must either have social status 
or take measures to effectively resist those who are more powerful 
within that situation. Second, people must have a reasonable under- 
standing of the social situation and context in which they are operat- 
ing. And third, people must have the skills to manage the social 
situation in order to both understand and affect how information 
flows and is interpreted. These prerequisites for achieving privacy can 
be overwhelming. Furthermore, they are often taken for granted by 
those questioning why youth don't do more to manage their privacy. 

When teens try to achieve privacy in networked publics, they 
often struggle with these foundational elements. In social settings 


where parents lurk over teens' shoulders under the guise of making 
sure their children are safe, teens often lack the agency necessary 
to control the social situation. 16 The dynamics of mediated social situ- 
ations — including invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and persis- 
tent content — further complicate things, making it incredibly 
difficult for teens to imagine the boundaries of these mediated social 
situations. Finally, it's hard to develop the skills to manage how 
information will flow within a social situation when the underlying 
affordances change regularly. For example, when sites like Facebook 
repeatedly alter their privacy settings, developing the necessary skills 
to manage how visible content should be becomes, if not next to 
impossible, then incredibly labor-intensive. Given all of this, teens 
cannot easily control the flow of information on social media. Some 
teens understand this intuitively; others struggle with this because 
popular rhetoric focuses so heavily on access and control. The most 
creative teens often respond to the limitations they face by experi- 
menting with more innovative approaches to achieving privacy in 
order to control the social situation. This typically involves working 
around technical affordances, reclaiming agency, and using novel 
strategies to reconfigure the social situation. 

Public by Default, Private Through Effort 

The default in most interpersonal conversations, even those that 
take place in public settings, is that interactions are private by default, 
public through effort. For example, when two people are chatting in 
a cafe, they can assume a certain level of privacy. Parts of the conver- 
sation may get recounted later, but unless someone within hearing 
range was surreptitiously recording the conversation, the conversa- 
tion most likely remains somewhat private due to social norms 
around politeness and civil inattention. There are many examples of 
people violating this norm, including Linda Tripp's decision to record 
Monica Lewinsky's confession and paparazzi using long-range cam- 
eras to capture celebrities from afar. 17 However, these are seen as vio- 
lations because most people do not assume that their conversation 

privacy 61 

will be publicized if they understand the social situation to be 

In a mediated world, assumptions and norms about the visibility 
and spread of expressions must be questioned. Many of the most 
popular genres of social media are designed to encourage participants 
to spread information. On a site like Facebook, it is far easier to share 
with all friends than to manipulate the privacy settings to limit the 
visibility of a particular piece of content to a narrower audience. As a 
result, many participants make a different calculation than the one 
they would make in an unmediated situation. Rather than asking 
themselves if the information to be shared is significant enough to be 
broadly publicized, they question whether it is intimate enough to 
require special protection. In other words, when participating in net- 
worked publics, many participants embrace a widespread public-by- 
default, private-through-effort mentality. 

Because of this public-by-default framework, most teens won't 
bother to limit the audience who can see what they consider to be 
mundane conversations on Facebook. Teens will regularly share 
things widely on Facebook simply because they see no reason to 
make the effort to make those pieces of content private. For example, 
teens will share "Happy Birthday" messages or bored notes where 
they ask others what they're doing openly because they don't see 
these particular interactions as having much significance. The sum of 
interactions that they have online appear to be much more public 
because teens don't go out of their way to make minutiae private. 18 
Adults complain that teens are wasting their time publicizing trivia, 
whereas teens feel as though their audience can filter out anything 
that appears to be irrelevant. 

This does not mean that teens never restrict the visibility of con- 
tent. When they think something might be sensitive, they often 
switch to a different medium, turning to text messages or chat to 
communicate with smaller audiences directly. Of course, sometimes 
they also mess up, intentionally or unintentionally. They might post 
an inappropriate comment that they know will spark a fight because 

62 privacy 

they're trying to get attention or because they're lashing out. They 
might post a photo that they don't think will be particularly contro- 
versial given their imagined audience, only to have that photo cause 
drama or result in other unexpected trouble. Teens do think through 
the social cost to what they post, but they don't always get it right. 

Teens are aware that technology has shifted sharing norms, but 
they see this more in terms of what's visible than as an underlying 
value change. In North Carolina, I met Alicia, a white seventeen- 
year-old who articulated how she felt technology had shaped infor- 
mation sharing. 

I just think that [technology is] redefining what's acceptable for 
people to put out about themselves. I've grown up with tech- 
nology so I don't know how it was before this boom of social 
networking. But it just seems like instead of spending all of our 
time talking to other individual people and sharing things that 
would seem private we just spend all of our time putting it in one 
module of communication where people can go and access it if 
they want to. It's just more convenient. 

Alicia recognizes that the public-by-default dynamic creates a con- 
flict around privacy, but she thinks that it's a red herring. "When 
[adults] see [our photo albums] or when they see conversations on 
Facebook wall to wall, they think that it's this huge breach of privacy. 
I just think it's different. ... I think privacy is more just you choos- 
ing what you want to keep to yourself." Alicia is not giving up on 
privacy just because she chooses to share broadly. Instead, she believes 
that she can achieve privacy by choosing what not to share. 

By focusing on what to keep private rather than what to publicize, 
teens often inadvertently play into another common rhetorical 
crutch — the notion that privacy is necessary only for those who have 
something to hide. Indeed, many teens consciously seek out privacy 
when they're trying to restrict access to a narrower audience either out 
of respect or out of fear. But as content becomes increasingly persis- 
tent, teens are also much more aware of the unintended consequences 


of having data available that could easily be taken out of context at 
a later time. 

In DC, I met an African American seventeen-year-old named 
Shamika who found that her peers loved to use old status updates 
and point to them in a new context in order to "start drama." She 
found this infuriating because the posts that she wrote a month ear- 
lier were never intended as fodder for current arguments. To deal 
with this, Shamika took radical measures to delete content from the 
past. Each day, when she logged into Facebook, she'd read comments 
she received and then delete them. She'd scan through the comments 
she'd left on friends' updates and photos and delete those. She 
systematically cleansed her Facebook presence in a practice known 
as "whitewalling" in which she made certain that the front of her 
Facebook page — originally called the "wall" — was blank, revealing 
the background color of white. When I remarked to Shamika that 
anyone could copy and paste that content and bring it back at a later 
date, she nodded knowingly before telling me that doing so would be 
"creepy." In other words, by using technology to signal what was 
expected, she shifted the burden from being a matter of technological 
access to being about a violation of social norms. 

Although persistence has become de facto on most major social 
media, new apps have begun to emerge that call this normative affor- 
dance into question. For example, in 2013, teens starting using Snap- 
chat, a photo-sharing app in which images purportedly self-destruct 
after being viewed. Given the assumption that teens use such services 
only to share inappropriate content, journalists often referred to this 
application in the same breath as sexting or the sharing of inappro- 
priate sexual images. But in casually asking teens about Snapchat, 
I found most were using the app to signal that an image wasn't meant 
for posterity. They shared inside jokes, silly pictures, and images that 
were funny only in the moment. Rather than viewing photographs as 
an archival production, they saw the creation and sharing of these 
digital images as akin to an ephemeral gesture. And they used Snap- 
chat to signal this expectation. 

64 privacy 

As discussed in the introduction, technical affordances and design 
defaults do influence how teens understand and use particular social 
media, but they don't dictate practice. As teens encounter particular 
technologies, they make decisions based on what they're trying to 
achieve. More often than not, in a technical ecosystem in which 
making content private is more difficult than sharing broadly, teens 
choose to share, even if doing so creates the impression that they have 
given up on privacy. It's not that every teen is desperate for wide- 
spread attention; plenty simply see no reason to take the effort to 
minimize the visibility of their photos and conversations. As a result, 
interactions that would be ephemeral in an unmediated space are 
suddenly persistent, creating the impression that norms have radi- 
cally changed even though they haven't. Instead of going out of their 
way to achieve privacy by restricting the visibility of particular pieces 
of content, teens develop other strategies for achieving privacy in 

Social Steganography 

Children love to experiment with encoding messages. From pig 
latin to invisible ink pens, children explore hidden messages when 
they're imagining themselves as spies and messengers. As children 
grow up, they look for more sophisticated means of passing messages 
that elude the watchful eyes of adults. In watching teens navigate 
networked publics, I became enamored of how they were regularly 
encoding hidden meaning in publicly available messages. They were 
engaged in a practice that Alice Marwick and I called "social steg- 
anography," or hiding messages in plain sight by leveraging shared 
knowledge and cues embedded in particular social contexts. 

The practice of hiding in plain sight is not new. When ancient 
Greeks wanted to send a message over great distances, they couldn't 
rely on privacy. Messengers could easily be captured and even 
encoded messages deciphered. The most secure way to send a private 
message was to make sure that no one knew that the message existed 
in the first place. Historical sources describe the extraordinary lengths 

privacy 65 

to which Greeks went, hiding messages within wax tablets or tattoo- 
ing them on a slave's head and allowing the slave's hair to grow out 
before sending him or her out to meet the message's recipient. 19 
Although these messages could be easily read by anyone who both- 
ered to look, they became visible only if the viewer knew to look 
for them in the first place. Cryptographers describe this practice of 
hiding messages in plain sight as steganography. 

Social steganography uses countless linguistic and cultural tools, 
including lyrics, in-jokes, and culturally specific references to encode 
messages that are functionally accessible but simultaneously mean- 
ingless. Some teens use pronouns while others refer to events, use 
nicknames, and employ predetermined code words to share gossip 
that lurking adults can't interpret. Many teens write in ways that will 
blend in and be invisible to or misinterpreted by adults. Whole con- 
versations about school gossip, crushes, and annoying teachers go 
unnoticed as teens host conversations that are rendered meaningless 
to outside observers. 

These practices are not new. Teens have long used whatever tools 
are around them to try to share information under the noses of their 
teachers and parents. At school, passing notes and putting notes in 
lockers are classic examples of how teens use paper, pen, and ingenu- 
ity to share information. Graffiti on bathroom walls may appear sim- 
ply to be an act of vandalism, but these scrawled markings also 
convey messages. As new technologies have entered into teen life, it's 
not surprising that teens also use them in similarly cryptic ways to 
communicate with one another. Texting gossip during class serves 
much of the same purpose as passing a note, yet it doesn't require 
having to move a physical object, which reduces the likelihood of 
getting caught. But encoding messages guarantees only that if all else 
fails, the meaning will not become accessible, even if control over the 
information itself is unsuccessful. 

When Carmen, a Latina seventeen-year-old living in Boston, broke 
up with her boyfriend, she "wasn't in the happiest state." She wanted 
her friends to know how she was feeling. Like many of her peers, 

66 privacy 

Carmen shared her emotions by using song lyrics. Thus, her first 
instinct was to post song lyrics from an "emo" or depressing song, but 
she was worried that her mother might interpret the lyric in the 
wrong way. This had happened before. Unfortunately, Carmen's 
mom regularly "overreacted" when Carmen posted something with 
significant emotional overtones. Thus, she wanted to find a song lyric 
that conveyed what she felt but didn't trigger her mom to think she 
was suicidal. 

She was also attentive to the way in which her mother's presence on 
Facebook tended to disrupt the social dynamics among her friends. 
Carmen and her mom are close and, for the most part, Carmen loves 
having her mom as one of her friends on Facebook, but her mom's 
incessant desire to comment on Facebook tends to discourage 
responses from her friends. As Carmen told me, when her mother 
comments, "it scares everyone away. Everyone kind of disappears after 
the mom post." She wanted to make sure to post something that her 
friends would respond to, even if her mom jumped in to comment. 

Carmen settled on posting lyrics from "Always Look on the Bright 
Side of Life." This song sounds happy but is sung during a scene in 
the Monty Python movie Life of Brian in which the main character 
is being crucified. Carmen knew that her immigrant Argentinean 
mother would not understand the British cultural reference, but she 
also knew her close friends would. Only a few weeks earlier, she and 
her geeky girlfriends had watched the film together at a sleepover and 
laughed at the peculiar juxtaposition of song lyric and scene. Her 
strategy was effective; her mother took the words at face value, imme- 
diately commenting on Facebook that it was great to see her so happy. 
Her friends didn't attempt to correct her mother's misinterpretation. 
Instead, they picked up their phones and texted Carmen to see if she 
was OK. 

Part of what makes Carmen's message especially effective is that she 
regularly posts song lyrics to express all sorts of feelings. As a result, 
this song lyric blended into a collection of other song lyrics, quotes, 
and comments. She did not try to draw attention to the message itself 

privacy 67 

but knew that her close friends would know how to interpret what 
they saw. And they did. Her friends had the cultural knowledge about 
what references were being made to interpret and contextualize the 
message underneath the song lyric. Thus, she conveyed meaning to 
some while sharing only a song lyric with many more. 

While many teens encode meaning as a strategy for navigating 
visibility, other teens leverage similar techniques to tease their class- 
mates with secrets. For example, some teens use pronouns and song 
lyrics in ways that make it very clear to the onlooker that they are not 
"in the know." In North Carolina, I was browsing Facebook with a 
white seventeen-year-old named Serena when we stumbled across a 
status update written by her classmate Kristy. Kristy's update said, 
"I'm sick and tired of all of this," and was already "Liked" by more 
than thirty people. I asked Serena what this meant, and she went into 
a long explanation about the dramas between Kristy and Cathy. Sure 
enough, over on Cathy's profile was a status update that read, "She's 
such a bitch," which was also liked by dozens of people. As an out- 
sider, I had no way of knowing that these two posts were related to 
each other, let alone what was referenced by the pronouns "this" and 
"she." But Serena could fully interpret the drama that was unfolding; 
she knew the players, and she knew what the fight was about. She 
brought all of this knowledge to her interpretation of what she saw on 
Facebook, yet she also knew that many of her classmates and none of 
her teachers would know what was happening. Although outsiders 
were surely seeing these individual messages, few would dare ask. 

When teenagers post encoded messages in a visible way, they are 
aware that people outside of their intended audience will be curious. 
Some will find the uninterpretable messages to be a frustrating 
marker of popularity, while others will see them as an enticing oppor- 
tunity to learn more. Some will investigate, while others will ignore 
what they can't understand. When I asked Jenna, a white seventeen- 
year-old from a different North Carolina school, how she felt about 
seeing encoded messages, she told me that it depended on who was 
writing the message. 

68 privacy 

If it's someone that I want to know what they're talking about, 
then I'll try to investigate it. I'll look at the wall, a conversation 
or something. But [sometimes] I don't really care what so-and-so 
is doing. I have friends from when I went to Malaysia. They were 
all about Facebook. . . . And sometimes I hide them because 
whatever they're talking about is confusing to me because I don't 
know what they're talking about or I get stuff from them that I 
don't really want. 

Many teens are happy to publicly perform their social dramas for 
their classmates and acquaintances, provided that only those in the 
know will actually understand what's really going on and those who 
shouldn't be involved are socially isolated from knowing what's 
unfolding. These teens know that adults might be present, but they 
also feel that, if asked, they could create a convincing alternate inter- 
pretation of what was being discussed. Through such encoded lan- 
guage, teens can exclude people who are not part of the cycle of gossip 
at school, including parents, teachers, and peers outside their imme- 
diate social sphere. 20 

Over the decade that I observed teens' social media practices, I 
watched encoding content become more common. In 2010— 2011, 
teens started talking about subliminal tweeting, or "subtweeting," to 
refer to the practice of encoding tweets to render them meaningless 
to clueless outsiders. More often than not, they employed this term 
when referencing various teen dramas that occurred between friends 
and classmates that required insider knowledge to decode. In other 
words, teens subtweet to talk behind someone else's back. Although 
this is only one technique for encoding information, the rise of this 
term highlights how popular the practice has become. 21 

Encoding content, subtweeting, and otherwise engaging in social 
steganography offers one strategy for reclaiming agency in an effort 
to achieve privacy in networked publics. In doing so, teens recognize 
that limiting access to meaning can be a much more powerful tool 
for achieving privacy than trying to limit access to the content itself. 


Although not all teenagers are carefully crafting content to be under- 
stood by a limited audience, many are exploring techniques like this 
to express themselves privately in situations in which they assume 
that others are watching. 

Living with Surveillance 

In 2008, the New York Times published an article called "Text Gen- 
eration Gap: U R 2 Old (JK)." The piece begins with an anecdote 
about a father shuttling around his daughter and her friend. They are 
talking, and Dad interrupts to give his opinion; the girls roll their eyes. 
And then there is silence, while the girls start texting. When Dad com- 
ments to his daughter that she's being rude for texting on her phone 
rather than talking to her friend, the daughter replies: "But, Dad, we're 
texting each other. I don't want you to hear what I'm saying." 12 

Teens have many words for the kinds of everyday surveillance that 
they have grown accustomed to: lurking, listening in, hovering, and 
being "in my business." Many of the privacy strategies that teens imple- 
ment are intended to counter the power dynamic that emerges when 
parents and other adults feel as though they have the right to watch 
and listen. They shift tools and encode content, use privacy settings, 
and demand privacy. 23 Some teens even go to extremes to challenge 
adults' surveillance. 

In Washington, DC, my colleague Alice Marwick interviewed an 
eighteen-year-old black teen named Mikalah who had grown accus- 
tomed to ongoing surveillance by adults. Having been in and out of 
different foster care settings, she was used to having state agencies and 
her varying guardians regularly check in on her, online and offline. 
Frustrated by their attempts to access what she posted on Facebook, 
she decided to delete her account. When she went to do so, she was 
shown a message discouraging her from leaving Facebook. Pictures of 
her friends were portrayed, along with a note about how they would 
miss her on the site. Facebook also gave her a different option — she 
could simply deactivate her account. If she took this option, her pro- 
file would disappear, but she could login at any time and reactivate 

70 privacy 

her account, making her profile reappear. Doing so would allow her 
to preserve her account, including her content, friends, comments, 
and settings. 

Presented with this option, Mikalah had an idea. She deactivated 
her account. The next day, she logged in and reactivated her account, 
chatted with friends, and caught up on the day's conversations. When 
she was done, she deactivated her account again. The next night, she 
repeated this same pattern. By repeatedly deactivating and reactivat- 
ing her account, she turned Facebook into a real-time tool. Anyone 
who checked in on her when she was logged in would find her 
account, but if they searched for her during off hours, she was miss- 
ing. From Mikalah 's perspective, this was a privacy-achieving prac- 
tice because she only logged in at night, whereas the adults she 
encountered seemed to log in only during the day. By repurposing 
the deactivation feature to meet her needs, Mikalah found a way to 
control the social situation to the best of her ability. 

Mikalah 's approach is extreme, but it highlights the measures that 
some teens take to achieve privacy in light of ongoing surveillance. 
Teens' experiences with surveillance vary tremendously. Those who 
are marginalized — typically because of their race or socioeconomic 
status — are much more likely to experience state surveillance than 
those who are privileged, but even privileged youth must contend 
with parental surveillance. 24 

Although not all parents and guardians are trying to control their 
children's every move, many believe that being a "good" parent 
means being all-knowing. I regularly heard parents say that being a 
responsible parent required them to violate their children's privacy, 
especially when the internet is involved. In an online forum, Chris- 
tina, a mother from New York, explained her reasoning. "I do not 
believe teenagers 'need' privacy — not when it comes to the Internet. 
I track everything my kids do online. I search their bedrooms too. 
I'm the parent — I'm not their friend." When a teen responds to her 
post by arguing that parents should not look over their children's 
shoulders, Christina responds critically. 

privacy 71 

Annoying or not, I do it and will always do it. It's MY computer. 
I also log in and check their history, and track where they go, 
who they talk to . . . everything. I'm a mom. It is my responsibil- 
ity to protect them. I wouldn't let them talk to strangers "irl" so 
why would I let them do it online without supervising? That's 
just foolish, imo. If my girls don't like my spying, they're free to 
not use the computer. 

Christina's attitude is not universal, but it does reflect a style of 
"intensive" parenting that is quite common in the United States. 2S 
Legal scholars Gaia Bernstein and Zvi Triger have found that the 
norms around intensive parenting are increasingly part of public dis- 
course and inscribed into law, making parents liable if they don't 
abide by the cultural logic of intensive parenting. 26 Thus, even when 
parents don't share Christina's attitudes, there is significant pressure 
for them to engage in acts of surveillance to be "good" parents. And 
given the digital traces that teens leave behind as a byproduct of their 
mediated conversations, many parents feel the need to track, read, 
and consume every interaction their children have in networked pub- 
lics, even though doing so in an unmediated world is completely 

Christina may feel that she has the right to track her children's 
movements as long as they are in her house, but other parents make 
themselves all-knowing by being always present. In Michigan, 
Bianca, a white sixteen-year-old, told me that there is no such thing 
as privacy in her house because of her family dynamics. The problem 
isn't just that her parents are always around, but they seem to feel as 
though they have the right to be a part of any interaction that occurs 
within earshot. Bianca told me that it's impossible to have a conversa- 
tion with her best friend in her house because "my family butts in to 
everything." Not only do Bianca's parents listen in on her conversa- 
tions — whether they occur on the phone, via instant messaging, or in 
the living room — but they even interrupt to ask for clarifications. 
Rolling her eyes in agreement, Bianca's best friend explained that it's 

72 privacy 

much better for them to hang out at her house because her mother 
gives the girls "space." 

Parental nosiness is not new. In an era before cell phones, teens 
prized cordless phones precisely because they could be taken to a pri- 
vate space. 27 Even then, parents — and siblings — often used separate 
phones to listen in. Today, parental nosiness extends to kids' online 
encounters. In many households, the computer occupies a shared 
space — in part because parents are told that kids' safety depends on 
parental awareness of what their children are doing online. 

Although most of the teens I interviewed did not mind the central 
location of the computer, quite a few complain about their parents' 
ongoing tendency to hover. In Massachusetts, Kat, a white fifteen- 
year-old, told me that she found her mother's behavior annoying. 
"When I'm talking to somebody online, I don't like when they stand 
over my shoulder, and I'll be like, 'Mom, can you not read over my 
shoulder?' Not that I'm saying something bad. It just feels weird. I 
don't like it." Kat isn't ashamed of what she's doing online — and she 
has even willingly given her mother her Facebook password — but she 
hates feeling watched. Some teens see privacy as a right, but many 
more see privacy as a matter of trust. Thus, when their parents choose 
to snoop or lurk or read their online posts, these teens see it as a signal 
of distrust. Teens like Kat get upset when their parents never leave 
them alone when they're online because they read this as a lack of 
confidence in their actions. 

This issue of trust also emerges in relationship to passwords. Many 
teens are comfortable sharing their passwords with their parents "in 
case of an emergency" but expect that their parents will not use them 
to snoop. Christopher, a white fifteen-year-old from Alabama, told 
me that his parents had all of his passwords but that he expected them 
not to log in to his accounts unless there was a serious issue. He 
respected his parents' concern and desire to protect him, but in return, 
he expected them to trust him. Although he believed nothing in his 
accounts would upset his parents, he also said he would be angry if 
they logged in just to see what he was doing. Like many of his peers, 

privacy 73 

Christopher believes that there is a significant difference between 
having the ability to violate privacy and making the choice to do so. 

Whether privacy is a "right" that children can or cannot have, or a 
privilege that teens must earn, adult surveillance shapes teens' under- 
standing of — and experience with — privacy. In his book Discipline 
and Punish, philosopher Michel Foucault describes how surveillance 
operates as a mechanism of control. When inmates believe they are 
being watched, they conform to what they believe to be the norms of 
the prison and the expectations of their jailors. Surveillance is a 
mechanism by which powerful entities assert their power over less 
powerful individuals. When parents choose to hover, lurk, and track, 
they implicitly try to regulate teens' practices. Parents often engage 
in these acts out of love but fail to realize how surveillance is a form 
of oppression that limits teens' ability to make independent choices. 
Regardless of how they explicitly choose to respond to it, teens are 
configured by the surveillance that they experience. It shapes their 
understanding of the social context and undermines their agency, 
challenging their ability to control the social situation meaningfully. 
As a result, what teens' do to achieve privacy often looks quite differ- 
ent than what most adults would expect as appropriate tactics. Teens 
assume that they are being watched, and so they try to find privacy 
within public settings rather than in opposition to public-ness. 

Privacy as Process 

Taylor is not one to share, and if she had her druthers, she wouldn't 
tell her friends much about what's happening in her life. She under- 
stands that her friends mean well, but the Boston-based white fifteen- 
year-old is a reserved person, and she doesn't like it when people are 
"in [her] business." To combat nagging questions from friends and 
classmates, she has started creating a "light version" of her life that 
she'll regularly share on Facebook just so that her friends don't pester 
her about what's actually happening. Much to her frustration, she 
finds that sharing at least a little bit affords her more privacy than 
sharing nothing at all. 

74 privacy 

She's not alone. Many public figures find that the appearance of 
unlimited sharing allows them to achieve privacy meaningfully 
Heather Armstrong, a well-known blogger referred to by her nick- 
name "Dooce," once remarked: "People I meet tell me, 'It's so weird 
I know everything about you.' No you don't! Ninety-five percent of 
my life is not blogged about." 28 Through the act of sharing what 
appears to be everything, bloggers like Armstrong appear to be vul- 
nerable and open while still carving off a portion of their lives to keep 
truly private. 

In a world in which posting updates is common, purposeful, and 
performative, sharing often allows teens to control a social situation 
more than simply opting out. It also guarantees that others can't 
define the social situation. Sitting in an afterschool program in Los 
Angeles, I casually asked a teen participant why she shared so many 
embarrassing photos of herself on her profile. She laughed and told 
me that it was a lot safer if she shared her photos and put them in 
context by what she wrote than if she did not because she knew that 
her friends also had embarrassing photos. They'd be happy to embar- 
rass her if she let them. But by taking preemptive action and mock- 
ing herself by writing dismissive messages on photos that could be 
interpreted problematically, she undermined her friends' ability to 
define the situation differently. After explaining her logic, she contin- 
ued on to explain how her apparent exhibitionism left plenty of room 
for people to not focus in on the things that were deeply intimate in 
her life. 

In most cases where people share to maintain privacy, they do 
because they do not want someone to have power over them. Perfor- 
mative sharing may or may not be healthy. For example, I've met les- 
bian, gay, and transgendered teens who extensively share to appear 
straight so that people don't ask about their sexuality, and I've met 
abused teens who tell extravagant stories about their lives so that no 
one asks what's really happening at home. Issues emerge when teens 
start to deceive in order to keep the truth private. But by and large, 
when teens share to create a sense of privacy, they are simply asserting 

privacy 75 

agency in a social context in which their power is regularly under- 
mined. The most common way that this unfolds is when teens system- 
atically exclude certain information from what is otherwise a rich 
story. For example, plenty of teens tell their parents about what hap- 
pened at school without telling them information that would reveal 
that they have a crush. On one hand, these teens are hiding, but on the 
other hand, they're sharing in order to hold onto a space for privacy. 

Privacy is not a static construct. It is not an inherent property of 
any particular information or setting. It is a process by which people 
seek to have control over a social situation by managing impressions, 
information flows, and context. Cynics often suggest that only people 
who have something to hide need privacy. But this argument is a dis- 
traction. 29 Privacy is valuable because it is critical for personal develop- 
ment. As teenagers are coming of age, they want to feel as though they 
matter. Privacy is especially important for those who are marginalized 
or lack privilege within society. Teenagers have not given up on pri- 
vacy, even if their attempts to achieve it are often undermined by peo- 
ple who hold power over them. On the contrary, teens are consistently 
trying out new ways of achieving privacy by drawing on and modern- 
izing strategies that disempowered people have long used. 30 Rather 
than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are 
instead controlling access to meaning. 

It's easy to think of privacy and publicity as opposing concepts, 
and a lot of technology is built on the assumption that you have to 
choose to be private or public. Yet in practice, both privacy and pub- 
licity are blurred. Rather than eschewing privacy when they encoun- 
ter public spaces, many teens are looking for new ways to achieve 
privacy within networked publics. As such, when teens develop inno- 
vative strategies to achieve privacy, they often reclaim power by doing 
so. Privacy doesn't just depend on agency; being able to achieve 
privacy is an expression o/agency 

76 privacy 

3 addiction 
what makes teens 
obsessed with social 

In a 2009 New York Times article, "To Deal with Obsession, Some 
Defriend Facebook," psychologist Kimberly Young, director of the 
Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, describes dozens of teenagers 
she's met who tried to quit Facebook. "It's just like any other addic- 
tion," Young says. "It's hard to wean yourself." 1 

I also came across several teens who, because of limited time, 
challenging social dynamics, or a need to disengage, decided to quit 
different social media sites. 1 Andrew, a white high school senior in 
Nashville, made a pact with a friend to leave Facebook, or to commit 
"Facebook suicide," because he felt "addicted" to it. He found that 
he'd login at night, stay on the site until two o'clock in the morning, 
and then be frustrated with himself for not getting any sleep. He 
recounted telling himself, "This is stupid and it's having control of 
my life and I don't want that with anything." Andrew and his friend 
deactivated their profiles within minutes of each other, using the 
same computer. 

Andrew's decision had consequences. He said that not having an 
account cramped his social life. He had more trouble finding out 
about social activities, and he found negotiating interpersonal rela- 
tionships more challenging. He explained not being able to look up 


or "stalk" new friends as one example. To justify his decision, he 
thought about how older generations managed to get by without 
Facebook and decided that he was both willing to make and capable 
of making the sacrifice. "I just kind of remind myself that it's a social 
networking site," he said, "which is kind of a smart and dumb idea at 
the same time to me." Then he added, "Not really. It's a smart idea, 
but ... I should be more mature and get off Facebook." Thinking of 
his relationship to Facebook as an addiction allowed him to question 
what had become normative. By dismissing Facebook as insignificant 
and his frequent participation as immature, Andrew felt that he 
gained control over his relationship to the site and all that the rela- 
tionship signaled. 

Although teens often use the word addiction in passing reference to 
their online activities, media coverage of teens' use of social media 
amplifies the notion that the current generation of youth is uncon- 
trollably hooked on these new technologies and unable to control 
their lives. Fear mongering stories often point to accounts of internet 
addiction boot camps in China and South Korea, where the compul- 
sion allegedly rivals alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling. 3 In 
the United States, media coverage frequently portrays American 
youth in dark bedrooms with only the glow of the screen illuminat- 
ing their faces, implying that there's a generation of zombified social 
media addicts who are unable to tear themselves away from the 
streams of content from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This 
media-driven image of social media addiction looks nothing like the 
dynamic that Andrew was describing when he used the same term. 

There is no doubt that some youth develop an unhealthy relation- 
ship with technology. For some, an obsession with gaming or social 
media can wreak havoc on their lives, affecting school performance 
and stunting emotional development. However, the language of 
addiction sensationalizes teens' engagement with technology and 
suggests that mere participation leads to pathology. This language 
also suggests that technologies alone will determine social outcomes. 
The overarching media narrative is that teens lack the capacity to 


maintain a healthy relationship with social media. It depicts passion- 
ate engagement with technology as an illness that society must 
address. It is easier for adults to blame technology for undesirable 
outcomes than to consider other social, cultural, and personal factors 
that may be at play. 

When talking about teens' engagement with social media, many 
adults use the concept of addiction to suggest that teens lack control. 
Some even cite their own obsession with social media as evidence to 
support this perspective. Anxieties about teens' engagement with 
technology aren't new, but few ask why teens embrace each new 
social technology with such fervor. The pictures of teens' faces illu- 
minated by computer screens mirror earlier images of televisions' 
entertaining glow luring in teenagers. 4 Parents in previous genera- 
tions fretted about the hours teens whiled away hanging out or 
chatting on the phone. Today's teens aren't spending hours on 
landlines, but they are still conversing — updating others on social 
network sites, posting pictures and videos, and sending text messages 
to friends. Both entertainment and sociality are key reasons why 
teens invest so much energy in their online activities. 

Although teens complain about how time drags when they must 
do things that they do not find enjoyable, time seems to slip away 
when in mediated environments with their peers. This can be disori- 
enting and a source of guilt. It is also the root of anxiety about social 
media addiction. Consider the following conversation that took place 
when I was interviewing a pair of white sophomores and best friends 
in Kansas at the height of MySpace's popularity: 

Lilly: It's really awful with MySpace that I'll click on somebody 
who's sent a comment to me and I'll look at somebody else, 'cause 
they have a "Top 10 Friends" and I'll click on one of them, and then 
I'll end up looking at people's MySpaces in Tennessee and I started 
back with my neighbor. 

Melanie: And it's five hours later and you're like, "Oh my God. 
Where have I been?" 


Lilly: Yeah. You just get sucked in. I don't know who the genius 
was that thought it up because it really sucks you in. 

Addiction is one way to understand the dynamic that Lilly and 
Melanie are describing, but another is what psychologist Mihaly 
Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow." 5 For Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the state 
of complete and utter absorption. It's the same sense that's colloqui- 
ally described it as being "in the zone." Time disappears, attention 
focuses, and people feel euphorically engaged. This is the ideal state 
for creativity and artistry; athletes, musicians, and actors try to har- 
ness this mindset before they perform. It is critical to leadership, 
writing, software development, and education. Yet people also expe- 
rience this state when they gamble and play video games, two activi- 
ties that society often associates with compulsion or addiction. 6 Deep 
engagement does not seem to be a problem in and of itself, unless 
coupled with a practice that is socially unacceptable, physically dam- 
aging, or financially costly. 

Unlike most compulsions, teens are not less social when they 
engage deeply with social media. On the contrary, their participation 
in social media is typically highly social. Listening to teens talk about 
social media addiction reveals an interest not in features of their com- 
puters, smartphones, or even particular social media sites but in each 
other. 7 Teen "addiction" to social media is a new extension of typical 
human engagement. Their use of social media as their primary site of 
sociality is most often a byproduct of cultural dynamics that have 
nothing to do with technology, including parental restrictions and 
highly scheduled lives. Teens turn to, and are obsessed with, which- 
ever environment allows them to connect to friends. Most teens aren't 
addicted to social media; if anything, they're addicted to each other. 

The Addiction Narrative 

Addiction is a relatively modern concept. Although references to 
people being "addicted to the bottle" date back centuries, it wasn't 
until the early twentieth century that both medical professionals and 


the public consistently used the term addiction to refer to substance 
abuse. 8 Before that, the term referred to a strong interest in or devo- 
tion to a particular pursuit such as gardening or reading. 9 As con- 
cerns about addiction took hold in the late nineteenth and early 
twentieth centuries, addiction became a medical concern. Medical 
practitioners consistently blamed the substance, even while having 
conflicted feelings about how responsible an individual was for the 
problem. As the Journal of the American Medical Association opined in 
1906, "It matters little whether one speaks of the opium habit, the 
opium disease, or the opium addiction." 10 

As the twentieth century progressed, the public joined medical 
practitioners in taking addiction seriously, and the term addiction 
gained traction in popular discourse. Alcoholics Anonymous coalesced 
from a community of compulsive drinkers in 1935 to a national orga- 
nization, structured to help those struggling to get sober. In 1949, the 
World Health Organization convened a committee to consider "drugs 
liable to produce addiction." 11 

Addiction initially referred only to drug and alcohol abuse, but as 
it entered popular parlance, the term came to mean behavioral com- 
pulsions as well, including gambling, overeating, self-injury, and sex. 
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the 
American Psychiatric Association's classification of mental disorders, 
differentiates chemical dependence as substance disorders and behav- 
ioral compulsions as impulse-control disorders. Over the past twenty 
years, excessive use of information and communication technologies 
has become part of the addiction narrative, often under the umbrella 
of an impulse-control disorder. 

In 1995, psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg coined the term internet addic- 
tion disorder. He wrote a satirical essay about "people abandoning 
their family obligations to sit gazing into their computer monitor as 
they surfed the Internet." Intending to parody society's obsession 
with pathologizing everyday behaviors, he inadvertently advanced 
the idea. Goldberg responded critically when academics began dis- 
cussing internet addiction as a legitimate disorder: "I don't think 

addiction 81 

Internet addiction disorder exists any more than tennis addictive 
disorder, bingo addictive disorder, and TV addictive disorder exist. 
People can overdo anything. To call it a disorder is an error." 12 

Although Goldberg rejects the notion of internet addiction, other 
practitioners and researchers have called for labeling compulsive inter- 
net usage a disorder. 13 Most of the clinical discussion around internet 
addiction focuses on whether "overuse" or "misuse" of the internet con- 
stitutes a disorder — as opposed to an obsession or compulsion. Experts 
also debate whether problematic engagement is simply a manifestation 
of depression, anxiety, or other disorders. Although some individuals' 
unhealthy relationships with the internet seem to impede their ability 
to lead active lives, it is not clear that the internet is the source of the 
problem. But addiction is an easy and familiar trope. 

Addiction is often represented in the media as a problem with 
youth culture. In 1938, the film Reefer Madness started a mass frenzy, 
depicting marijuana as a "killer weed" turning vulnerable young 
people into addicts. Rising heroin use in the late 1950s and 1960s 
heightened popular concern, amplified by the drug-related deaths of 
rock idols Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison at the start of the 1970s. 
Then, in 1971, an anonymously authored book brought the issue of 
addiction into direct contact with childhood, magnifying already 
widespread anxiety among parents. Go Ask Alice, purportedly the 
diary of a teenage girl, documents descent into addiction, ending 
with what the prologue indicates as an eventual overdose. Although 
some parents and educators want the book banned for describing 
drug use, others tout the book's stark portrayal of substance abuse as 
proof of the dangers of drugs. 14 Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, 
popular media simultaneously valorized and demonized substance 
abuse, with young addicts taking center stage in movies like Trainspot- 
ting, Drugstore Cowboy, and The Basketball Diaries. This practice 
continues into the twenty-first century with TV shows like Skins and 
Celebrity Rehab. 

Public discussions of addiction introduce conflicting sentiments. 
On one hand, American society takes medical and mental health 

82 addiction 

concerns more seriously. On the other, celebrities often celebrate — 
and are still celebrated for — their out- of- control substance use. When 
Amy Winehouse, a beloved blues singer with a bad girl reputation, 
died in 2011, the media broadly discussed her death in terms of addic- 
tion. News reports detailed her struggles with alcohol and drugs, 
often referencing the lyrics of her signature song "Rehab," which 
focus on her refusal to go to a drug rehabilitation clinic. Meanwhile, 
upon hearing of her death, many young people used a Twitter hashtag 
to celebrate her membership in #27club, a collection of famous musi- 
cians, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt 
Cobain, whose drug and alcohol abuse contributed to early deaths at 
the age of twenty-seven. 

The problem with popular discussions about addiction is that it 
doesn't matter whether people are chemically or psychologically 
dependent on a substance or behavior. Anyone who engages in a 
practice in ways that society sees as putting more socially acceptable 
aspects of their lives in jeopardy are seen as addicted. When teenagers 
choose to use the internet for social or entertainment purposes instead 
of doing homework, parents are suspicious. When socializing or play 
results in less sleep or poorer grades, parents blame the technology. 
Of course, it is easy to imagine that teens may prefer to socialize with 
friends or relax instead of doing homework, even if these activities are 
not societally sanctioned. Instead of acknowledging this, many adults 
project their priorities onto teens and pathologize their children's 
interactions with technology. 

There are teens who do struggle significantly with impulse control, 
and we should not ignore the difficulties they face in managing their 
priorities. But instead of prompting a productive conversation, addic- 
tion rhetoric positions new technologies as devilish and teenagers as 
constitutionally incapable of having agency in response to the temp- 
tations that surround them. 

Many adults believe that they have a sense of what's "good" 
for teens — school, homework, focus, attention, and early bedtime — 
and many teens are acutely aware of how much society values such 


adult- oriented pursuits. But many adults are unaware of how social 
their everyday experiences are and how desperate teens are to have 
access to a social world like that which adults take for granted. 

Although a century's worth of research on chemical addiction, 
compulsion, and flow has offered tremendous insights into human 
psychology, not everyone is powerless in relation to the world around 
them. Teenagers may seem like a uniquely vulnerable population, but 
nothing is gained from framing their social media interactions in 
terms of a disease. Teens, like adults, are deeply social. But unlike 
adults, teens often have little freedom to connect with others on their 
own terms, and they clamor for sociality in ways that may look 
foreign to adults. 

Growing Up with Limited Freedom 

Reflecting on her love for Facebook, Tara, a Vietnamese American 
sixteen-year- old from Michigan, explains that her use of the site "is 
kinda like an addiction." She laughs as she says this, noting, "It's like 
everyone says all these bad things about it. It does take up your time. 
It does, but you can't help it." Tara likes Facebook because it allows 
her to connect with her friends. Like many of her peers, Tara spends 
hours each week viewing her friends' photos and updates, writing 
comments, and reading comments left by others. For Tara, participat- 
ing on Facebook is a social necessity, a crucial component of her social 
life. This is not to say that it is the only part of that life, or even her 
preferred way of being with friends. When I tried to ask Tara why she 
spent so much time on Facebook instead of connecting offline, she cut 
me off, explaining that she would much prefer to hang out with her 
friends face to face but finds it impossible. At that point, her eighteen- 
year-old sister Lila jumped in to explain, "If you don't have the option 
[of getting together in person], then you can just go online." 

Both girls made very clear that what mattered to them was hang- 
ing out with friends, and they were happy to use any means necessary 
to do so. In using the term addiction to describe their extensive use of 
Facebook, both Tara and Lila acknowledged that their parents didn't 

84 addiction 

approve of the amount of time they spent on the site. But their par- 
ents also forbade them from socializing out of the home as often as 
they would like. They struggled to find a term to express the gap 
between their perspective towards Facebook and their parents' atti- 
tudes, particularly because they felt that it was easier to sneak in time 
on Facebook than to sneak out of the house. They nonchalantly 
referred to their extensive time online through the lens of addiction 
to highlight that they felt as though participation was central to their 
lives because their friends and peers really mattered to them. For 
them, Facebook was the only way to stay connected. 

To many parents, the amount of time that teens spend on social 
media is evidence of addiction in a negative sense. These parents 
often believe that the technologies are in and of themselves the draw 
for their children. Such parents often go to great lengths to get their 
children off of social media, particularly when they're concerned 
about how often or in what ways their children are using these sites. 
In Boston, a father paid his fourteen-year-old daughter two hundred 
dollars to deactivate her Facebook account for five months. 15 After a 
teen girl in North Carolina used Facebook to complain about her 
father, her father responded by posting an irate video on YouTube in 
which he reads a letter he wrote to his daughter and then fires a gun 
at his daughter's laptop." 5 These are admittedly extreme responses — 
and there is a lot more to question in these cases than teens' supposed 
addiction to social media — but these parents' drastic measures reveal 
the frustration parents have with the technological artifacts them- 

I often heard parents complain that their children preferred com- 
puters to "real" people. Meanwhile, the teens I met repeatedly indi- 
cated that they would much rather get together with friends in person. 
A gap in perspective exists because teens and parents have different 
ideas of what sociality should look like. Whereas parents often high- 
lighted the classroom, after-school activities, and prearranged in- 
home visits as opportunities for teens to gather with friends, teens 
were more interested in informal gatherings with broader groups of 

addiction 85 

peers, free from adult surveillance. Many parents felt as though teens 
had plenty of social opportunities whereas the teens I met felt the 

Today's teenagers have less freedom to wander than any previous 
generation. 17 Many middle-class teenagers once grew up with the 
option to "do whatever you please, but be home by dark." While 
race, socioeconomic class, and urban and suburban localities shaped 
particular dynamics of childhood, walking or bicycling to school was 
ordinary, and gathering with friends in public or commercial places — 
parks, malls, diners, parking lots, and so on — was commonplace. 
Until fears about "latchkey kids" emerged in the 1980s, it was normal 
for children, tweens, and teenagers to be alone. It was also common 
for youth in their preteen and early teenage years to take care of 
younger siblings and to earn their own money through paper routes, 
babysitting, and odd jobs before they could find work in more formal 
settings. Sneaking out of the house at night was not sanctioned, but 
it wasn't rare either. 

Childhood has changed. As a result of attending schools outside 
their neighborhoods, many teens know few youth their age who live 
in walking distance. Fear often dictates the edges of mobility. Even 
in suburban enclaves where crimes are rare, teens are warned of the 
riskiness of wandering outside. In countless communities I visited, 
families saw biking around the neighborhood as inherently unsafe. 
Many of the teens I met believed that danger lurked everywhere. 
They often echoed concerns presented by their parents. For example, 
Jordan, a fifteen-year-old living in a suburb in Austin, told me that 
she is not allowed to be outside without adult supervision. Although 
her father was born into a white middle-class family in the United 
States, her foreign mother's fear shaped her childhood. "My mom's 
from Mexico . . . and she thinks I'll get kidnapped," she said. Jordan 
felt as though getting kidnapped was unlikely, but she wasn't inter- 
ested in tempting fate to find out. She too was scared of going to the 
neighborhood park because strangers lurked there, but she wished 
her mom would let her rollerblade on the street in front of the house. 


In many communities, parenting norms focus on limiting chil- 
dren's access to public places, keeping an eye on their activities, and 
providing extensive structure. Many parents — especially those from 
wealthier and less crime-ridden communities — know that they have 
restricted their children's mobility more than their parents restricted 
theirs. They argue that these restrictions are necessary in an increas- 
ingly dangerous society, even though the data suggest that contem- 
porary youth face fewer dangers than they did twenty years ago.' 8 

Parents aren't the only ones limiting teens' mobility. Teens often 
self-restrict either to appease parents or because they believe that 
there are significant risks. Teens regularly echoed parental fears, also 
arguing that today's world is much more unsafe than it previously 
was. Natalie, a white fifteen-year- old in Seattle, told me that she 
understands why her parents do not allow her to walk anywhere, but 
she wishes that the world were not so dangerous. She genuinely 
believes that the risks that her peers face are unprecedented. 

The public and commercial spaces that I grew up with are now 
often seen as off-limits by both parents and teens. 19 Policymakers 
have implemented countless curfew and loitering laws to address 
gangs, delinquency, and teen violence, thereby limiting teens' access 
to public places. 10 Even when parents don't object and there are no 
legal restrictions involved, many food, shopping, and entertainment 
venues limit teens explicitly or implicitly, banning all teens or groups 
of teens. Some venues have even installed a new sound technology to 
ward off teens through a high-pitched sound that only children and 
adolescents can hear. 21 If teens have the freedom and a place to go, 
they encounter new struggles when they try to get there. Limited 
access to cars was a regular refrain among teens I interviewed. In 
towns where public transit is an option, independent travel is often 
forbidden by parents. Even in cities, many teens never ride public 
transit alone except to take a school bus to and from school. 

A study of how children get to school reveals the stark changes in 
mobility that have taken place over four decades. In 1969, 48 percent 
of children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade walked or 


biked to school compared to 12 percent who were driven by a family 
member. By 2009, those numbers had reversed; 13 percent walked or 
bicycled while 45 percent were driven. 21 In a safety-obsessed society, 
parents continue to drop off and pick up students well into high 
school. Although studies that focus on the decline of biking and 
walking usually address the implications for childhood obesity, this 
shift also has significant social implications. For many youth, walk- 
ing or biking to school historically provided unstructured time with 
friends and peers. Even when teens commuted alone, they often 
arrived early enough to hang out near their lockers before school or 
stayed late enough to get some time with friends before heading 
home. This is no longer the case in many of the schools I observed. 

On top of fear, restrictions, and limited mobility, the issue of time 
often arises as a key factor in limiting teens' opportunities to social- 
ize. Many teens have limited free time, due to afterschool activities, 
jobs, religious services, and family expectations. Nicholas, a white 
sixteen-year- old from Kansas, told me that he lacked free time 
because sports took up time after school and on weekends. On the 
rare occasions when he had downtime, his options for socializing 
were limited. His parents expected him to attend sports events if he 
was participating in the sport, but his parents would not take him to 
other school sports events just to hang out. If he had free time outside 
of his activities, they told him to focus on schoolwork, community 
service, or other approved activities. Hanging out with friends was 
viewed as a waste of time. His parents felt that he had plenty of 
opportunities to socialize during the group activities he was involved 
in. Nicholas disagreed. 

Many parents believe that keeping their children busy can keep 
them out of trouble. After I blogged about the restrictions on teenag- 
ers' mobility, I received an email from Enrique, a parent in Austin. In 
it, he explained: 

Bottom line is that we live in a society of fear; it is unfortunate 
but true. As a parent, I will admit that I protect my daughter 

88 addiction 

immensely, and I don't let my daughter go out to areas I can't 
see her. Much different when I was a kid. Am I being over pro- 
tective? Maybe. But it is the way it is. Is it depressing? No it is 
not as we keep her busy very busy w/o making it depressing :-) . 

Rather than enacting physical restrictions, Enrique focused on struc- 
turing his daughter's time to limit the likelihood that she would get 
into trouble, without making her feel overly constrained. 

The decision to introduce programmed activities and limit 
unstructured time is not unwarranted; research has shown a correla- 
tion between boredom and deviance. 23 In response to reports of such 
studies, many parents have gone into overdrive so that their children 
are never bored. As a result, many teens from middle- and upper- 
class backgrounds spend most of their days and nights in highly 
structured activities — sports, clubs, music lessons, and so on. This 
leaves little downtime for teens to reflect, play, socialize, or relax. 

My interview with Myra, a middle-class white fifteen-year-old 
from Iowa, turned funny and sad when "lack of time" became a ver- 
bal tick in response to every question I asked her about connecting 
with friends. From learning Czech to track, from orchestra to work 
in a nursery, she told me that her mother organized "98%" of her 
daily routine. Myra did not like all of these activities, but her mother 
thought they were important. She was resigned to them. Lack of free- 
dom and control over her schedule was a sore topic for Myra. At one 
point, she noted with an exasperated tone that weekends were no 
freer than weekdays: "Usually my mom will have things scheduled 
for me to do. So I really don't have much choice in what I'm doing 
Friday nights. ... I haven't had a free weekend in so long. I cannot 
even remember the last time I got to choose what I wanted to do over 
the weekend." Myra noted that her mother meant well, but she was 
exhausted and felt socially disconnected because she did not have 
time to connect with friends outside of classes. The activities she 
participated in were quite formal, leaving little room for casual inter- 
actions as she raced from one pursuit to the next. In between, Myra 


would jump on the computer in the hopes of chatting with a friend. 
Friendship and sociality — always mediated but still important — 
filled the interstices of her life. 

From wealthy suburbs to small towns, teenagers reported that 
parental fear, lack of transportation options, and heavily structured 
lives restricted their ability to meet and hang out with their friends 
face to face. Even in urban environments, where public transporta- 
tion presumably affords more freedom, teens talked about how their 
parents often forbade them from riding subways and buses out of 
fear. At home, teens grappled with lurking parents. The formal activ- 
ities teens described were often so highly structured that they allowed 
little room for casual sociality. And even when parents gave teens 
some freedom, they found that their friends' mobility was stifled by 
their parents. While parental restrictions and pressures are often well 
intended, they obliterate unstructured time and unintentionally posi- 
tion teen sociality as abnormal. This prompts teens to desperately — 
and, in some cases, sneakily — seek it out. As a result, many teens 
turn to what they see as the least common denominator: asynchro- 
nous social media, texting, and other mediated interactions. 

Reclaiming Sociality 

Amy, a biracial sixteen-year-old from Seattle, used MySpace to 
socialize because her mobility was curtailed. Every day, after school 
she immediately goes home, where she feeds her younger sister, helps 
her with her homework, and does household chores. Occasionally, 
her parents allow her to go out on weekends, but when I asked her 
how often, her friend James responded by saying, "Slim to none." 
Amy just shrugged in agreement. I asked her what she needed to do 
for her parents to allow her to go out. She spoke of the need to make 
sure the house was clean, while James rolled his eyes and said, "Your 
mom being in a good mood." I asked her how she got permission to 
come to the interview with me, and she told me that her mom saw it 
as equivalent to a job because I was offering money for teens' time. 
Amy told me that she was excited for the opportunity to hang out 

90 addiction 

with her friends at the interview. After we finished, I got the sense 
that they were intending to tell her parents that the interview ran 
long just to buy more time. 

Amy made it very clear that she didn't prefer hanging out with 
friends online but felt that technology provided a rare opportunity to 
connect even when she couldn't leave the house. When I asked her 
what she'd rather do, she explained, "Just go anywhere. I don't care 
where, just not home. Somewhere with my friends, just out hanging 
out." Resigned that this was not feasible, she spent as much time 
online as possible. As she explained, "My mom doesn't let me out of 
the house very often, so that's pretty much all I do, is I sit on MySpace 
and talk to people and text and talk on the phone, 'cause my mom's 
always got some crazy reason to keep me in the house." 

Looking just at her participation on MySpace, an outsider might 
argue that Amy appears to be addicted to social media. Talking with 
her, it's clear that she craves time with friends and uses any excuse to 
go online to do so. She is responding to the structural restrictions 
that make it difficult for her to achieve an age-old teen goal: get 
together with friends and hang out. Social media has become a place 
where teens can hold court. Their desire to connect, gossip, and hang 
out online makes sense in response to the highly organized and 
restricted lives that many teens lead. 

Social media introduces new opportunities for housebound teens 
to socialize and people-watch, but it also provides an opportunity to 
relax. Serious and diligent students like friends Sasha and Bianca, 
white sixteen-year-olds from Michigan, often emphasized the need 
for social downtime. Sasha described her daily schedule this way: "I'll 
study for a couple of hours and then I'll talk to my friends for a cou- 
ple of hours or whatever, and that just helps refocus my mind and 
helps me absorb the information more than just constantly studying." 
Then Bianca chimed in. "My brain has to stop taking in all the infor- 
mation." She needed time to just "relax for a while." Both of these 
teens were diligent students, and they saw socializing as an important 
complement to their hard work, a mechanism of rejuvenation. 

addiction 91 

When I asked what they gained from these online interactions, 
Bianca defended socializing using adult- oriented language. She high- 
lighted the opportunity to learn "social skills" and clarified by stating, 
"You learn how to deal with different situations and different people, 
and just to work with people that you don't like so much. So it just 
helps you." This language is not how most teens explain their practice, 
but it is a spot-on assessment. When teens interact with others, they 
engage in tremendous informal learning, developing a sense of who 
they are in relation to others while building a holistic understanding of 
the social world. Teens may clamor to get access to social media simply 
to hang out, but there they gain access to a rich learning environment. 

Being "addicted" to information and people is part of the human 
condition: it arises from a healthy desire to be aware of surroundings 
and to connect to society. The more opportunities there are to access 
information and connect to people, the more people embrace those 
situations. Whereas the colloquial term news junkie refers to people 
who rabidly consume journalistic coverage, I've never met a parent 
who worried that their child read the newspaper too often. Parents 
sometimes tease their children for being "bookworms," but they 
don't fret about their mental health. But when teens spend hours 
surfing the web, jumping from website to website, this often prompts 
concern. Parents lament their own busy schedules and lack of free 
time but dismiss similar sentiments from their children. 

Unfortunately, when teens turn to social media for sociality and 
information, adults often see something wrong, and they blame the 
technology for the outcomes. For example, in The Shallows, technol- 
ogy critic Nicholas Carr denounces the internet as insidious. He 
argues that the internet radically reworks our brains, destroying our 
ability to focus by distracting us with irrelevant information. There 
is little doubt that teens' brains are being rewired through their medi- 
ated interactions. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker points out, 
stimuli have always reworked, and are continuously reworking, our 
brains. Challenging Carr, Pinker argues that, "far from making us 
stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us 

92 addiction 

smart." 24 Popular science writer Steven Johnson makes a similar point 
in Everything Bad Is Good for You, pointing out that engaging with 
the increasingly sophisticated world of media sharpens our brains. 
The limitation of Carr's argument stems from his assumption that 
technology alone does cultural work and that resultant outcomes 
lead to change that is inevitably bad. This logic, rooted in techno- 
logical determinism, fails to recognize the sociocultural context in 
which technology is situated. 

I have little doubt that socializing online is rewiring teens' brains. 
Through their engagement with social media, teens are learning to 
understand a deeply networked and intertwined world. Yet unlike 
Carr, I do not think that the sky is falling. My views are closer to 
those of scholar Cathy Davidson, who, in Now You See It, argues that 
children embrace new technologies to learn. This results in changes 
to learning that often confound adults who relish the environments 
with which they are familiar and in which they had opportunities to 
learn. When teens engage with networked media, they're trying to 
take control of their lives and their relationship to society. In doing 
so, they begin to understand how people relate to one another and 
how information flows between people. They learn about the social 
world, and as Bianca points out, they develop social skills. 

What's at stake is not whether teens' brains are changing — they 
are always changing — but what growing up with mediated sociality 
means for teens and for society generally. Teenagers may not yet be 
experts on navigating a world drowning in information and flush 
with opportunities for social interaction, but there is no reason to 
believe that they won't develop those skills as they continue to engage 
with social media. There's also no reason to think that digital celi- 
bacy will help them be healthier, happier, and more capable adults. 

Coming of Age Without Agency 

Around the turn of the twentieth century, at the same time that 
the conception of addiction was emerging, psychologist G. Stanley 
Hall embarked on a mission to define adolescence in order to give 

addiction 93 

youth space to come of age without having to take on the full respon- 
sibilities of adulthood. 25 He used data about behavioral differences to 
make an argument about maturation and cognition. Hall argued 
that children were savages incapable of reasoning and that adoles- 
cence marked a developmental stage in which young people began to 
recognize morality. He believed that it was important to protect 
youth during this stage and worked with moral reformers to put lim- 
itations on child labor, to mandate compulsory education, and to 
introduce a notion of juvenile justice. His work set in motion a shift 
that resulted in American society understanding adolescents simulta- 
neously as a vulnerable population that needed protection and as a 
potentially delinquent population that had not yet matured. 

Hall was part of the significant social transformation of the late 
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries known as the Progressive 
Era. 26 This period in American history was a source of social activism 
and political reform affecting a wide array of issues. Alongside emerg- 
ing concerns about addiction was a rise in interest about the well- 
being of children that led to the curtailment of child labor and the 
creation of compulsory high school education. 27 Hall played a central 
role in helping define what childhood and adolescence should look 
like, using protectionist rhetoric to insulate children as vulnerable 
populations that resembled the language being used by political 
reformers seeking to outlaw alcohol. Although the attitudes and 
beliefs professed by these moral reformers were not widespread dur- 
ing the Progressive Era, they are now nearly universal in contempo- 
rary discourse about childhood. 

A century later, the frame of vulnerable children that Hall and his 
cohort popularized is still pervasive, and child protection has gone 
far beyond Hall's initial prescriptions. Protecting children from 
forced labor, providing opportunities for education, and treating 
youth differently in criminal justice are all beneficial mainstays from 
Hall's endeavors, but contemporary youth also face state-imposed 
curfews, experience limitations on where they can gather, and must 
get parental approval before they engage in a host of activities. By 

94 addiction 

imagining teens as balls of uncontrollable hormones, society has sys- 
tematically taken agency away from youth over the past century. 28 
This hampers their maturation, while the resultant restrictions 
prompt youth to either submit to or resist adult authority 

Although child protective services is another productive output of 
this movement, the current state of foster care and mental health 
infrastructure is so fractured that it often results in children being 
doubly oppressed. Most adults are well meaning and supportive, but 
the same system that empowers parents also forces some youth to 
face abuse. Meanwhile, many teenagers see education no longer as an 
opportunity but as a requirement; rather than having the space to 
mature, teens must inhabit a highly structured environment that is 
supposedly for their own good. For many teens, learning is not rel- 
ished but despised, even as they engage in accidental learning when- 
ever they interact with others. 

As the outcome of Hall's movement unfolded over the twentieth 
century, the period between childhood and adulthood widened, and 
twenty-first-century American youth spend an extended period in a 
liminal stage with restricted opportunities and rights. In buying into 
adolescence, what we've created is a pressure cooker. Teens are desper- 
ate to achieve the full rights of adulthood, even if they don't under- 
stand the responsibilities that this may entail. They are stuck in a 
system in which adults restrict, protect, and pressure them to achieve 
adult-defined measures of success. It's a testament to the strength of 
teens that so many have developed strong coping mechanisms to 
manage the awkwardness of this liminal stage. Social media — far 
from being the seductive Trojan horse — is a release valve, allowing 
youth to reclaim meaningful sociality as a tool for managing the 
pressures and limitations around them. 

As they make their way toward adulthood, teens need to learn how 
to engage in crucial aspects of maturation: self-presentation, manag- 
ing social relationships, and developing an understanding of the 
world around them. The structured and restrictive conditions that 
comprise the lives of many teens provides little room for them to 


explore these issues, but social media gives them a platform and a 
space where they can make up for what's lost. 

Grappling with Restrictions 

As teens seek out new spaces where they have agency, adults invent 
new blockades to restrict youth power. The rhetoric of addiction is 
one example, a cultural device used to undermine teens' efforts to 
reclaim a space. Restrictive adults act on their anxieties as well as 
their desire to protect youth, but in doing so, they perpetuate myths 
that produce the fears that prompt adults to place restrictions on 
teens in the first place. But this cycle doesn't just undermine teens' 
freedoms; it also pulls at the fabric of society more generally. 

After reading a news article about my work, Mike, a father in 
Illinois, emailed me to explain that he is strict with his children 
because of what he perceives to be a decline in societal values. 

The reason my children do not hang out as I used to as a teen is 
not due to predators necessarily, but due to other teens who have 
been raised on MTV, lack of parental guidance, and are treated 
as adults by their parents. ... I believe MySpace further sends 
the entire dynamic down the rabbit hole. If parents took more 
responsibility for instilling values, morals and standards in their 
children (versus relying on the educational system, television, 
and the media), I feel that we could reclaim some of this lost 
teen freedom for our children. 

Mike's email highlights a wide array of intertwined issues. He 
blames technology, institutions, and individuals. Rather than focus- 
ing on how he can help his children navigate this ecosystem, he 
blames other families and implies that the best solution for his 
children is social isolation. 

The concern that we've become disconnected as a society has 
become a common trope over the past two decades, and both schol- 
ars and the media have blamed everything from changes in food 
acquisition to neighborly isolation. 29 Whatever the cause, fear and 


distrust of others is palpable and pervasive. Driving around the 
United States, I was shocked by the skepticism many parents held for 
other parents. For example, Anindita — a seventeen-year- old of 
Indian and Pakistani descent living in Los Angeles — told me that she 
wasn't allowed to spend the night at friends' places because her dad 
was concerned that other fathers or brothers might get drunk and 
take advantage of her. Although I initially thought that her experi- 
ence was unique, I was surprised to find other parents who forbade 
their children from participating in sleepovers, too. 

When parents distrust others or the values of families around them, 
they often respond by trying to isolate their children. In a different 
community in Los Angeles, I met a fifteen-year-old boy named Mic 
whose Egyptian parents didn't want him to socialize with American 
teens, whom they perceived as upholding unhealthy values learned 
from American parents. As a result, he was forbidden from making 
friends at school, talking on the phone, and using social media; he 
was allowed to socialize only with cousins and trusted friends of the 
family when his family went to the mosque. To manage this, his 
father dropped him off at school and made him wait in the car until 
the bell rang; he picked him up again for lunch and then immediately 
after school. These restrictions weighed on Mic, and he was regularly 
seeking out opportunities to connect with others in interstitial times 
at school, often trying to sneak access to the internet between classes 
to have some form of social outlet. 

Mic's father sent him to school because he believed that this was 
the only way for Mic to get an education. Unfortunately, Mic's father 
failed to recognize that his restrictions hindered his son's ability to 
succeed owing to the heavy emphasis that American educational sys- 
tems place on collaboration, both in and out of the classroom. As the 
school began demanding extracurricular coordination through 
information technologies, Mic floundered, which only resulted in 
more restrictions at home. Mic's father failed to realize that Ameri- 
can educational systems take sociality for granted. Rather than see- 
ing socializing as a distraction from learning, schools are increasingly 

addiction 97 

integrating learning with social experiences to prepare youth for 
collaborative, social work environments. 

Although many parents have historically worked to minimize 
their children's exposure to diverse cultural mores, teens' use of social 
media often subverts the goals sought by moving to gated communi- 
ties or limiting exposure to broadcast media. By exploring broad net- 
works of people and diverse types of content, teens can easily get 
access to values and ideas that differ from what their parents try to 
instill. This is alluring to curious teens and terrifying to protective 
parents. As with earlier media genres that parents distrusted, many 
parents have chosen to demonize technologies that allow youth to 
escape their control. The rhetoric of addiction positions children as 
vulnerable to the seductiveness of technology, which in turn provides 
a concrete justification for restricting access and isolating children. 

Most youth aren't turning to social media because they can't resist 
the lure of technology. They're responding to a social world in which 
adults watch and curtail their practices and activities, justifying their 
protectionism as being necessary for safety. Social media has become 
an outlet for many youth, an opportunity to reclaim some sense of 
agency and have some semblance of social power. It has provided a 
window into society and an outlet for hanging out that these teens 
didn't even know they had lost. But teen sociality is fraught and 
many adults are uncomfortable with teens having access to unstruc- 
tured time and unmanaged relationships. 

The activities at the core of teens' engagement with social media 
look quite similar to those that took place in shared settings in previ- 
ous generations — at sock hops, discos, and football game stands. 
Teens hang out, gossip, flirt, people watch, joke around, and jockey 
for status. These dynamics are at the heart of teen life, and because 
they play out in a mediated world, teens relish any opportunity to log 
in and engage with their peers and the teen-oriented social world that 
unfolds through networked publics. But this is not comforting to 
those adults who want their children to spend less time socializing 
with peers and more time engaging in adult- approved activities. 

98 addiction 

Teens' engagement with social media — and the hanging out it 
often entails — can take up a great deal of time. To many adults, these 
activities can look obsessive and worthless. Media narratives often 
propagate the notion that engagement with social media is destruc- 
tive, even as educational environments increasingly assume that teens 
are networked. Many adults put pressure on teens to devote more 
time toward adult-prioritized practices and less time socializing, fail- 
ing to recognize the important types of learning that take place when 
teens do connect. When teens orient themselves away from adults 
and toward their peers, parents often grow anxious and worried 
about their children's future. The answer to the disconnect between 
parent goals and teen desires is not rhetoric that pathologizes teen 
practices, nor is it panicked restrictions on teen sociality. Rather, 
adults must recognize what teens are trying to achieve and work with 
them to find balance and to help them think about what they are 


4 danger 

are sexual predators 
lurking everywhere? 

Fred and Aaron, white fifteen-year-old friends living in suburban 
Texas, are avid gamers. When we first met in 2007, their mothers 
were present. I asked about their participation on social network sites, 
and they explained that they didn't use those sites but loved sites like 
Runescape, a fantasy game with customizable avatars. Their mothers 
nodded, acknowledging their familiarity with Runescape before 
interrupting their children's narrative to express how unsafe social 
network sites were. Something about Fred and Aaron's gritted nod in 
response left me wondering how these teens really felt about MySpace 
and Facebook — sites that were all the rage with their peer group at 
the time. Later, almost immediately after I sat with the boys alone to 
talk with them in-depth, they offered a different story. 

Aaron explained that he was active on MySpace but that his mother 
didn't know. Since many of his friends were using Facebook, he 
would have liked to create an account there, too, but his mother had 
an account on Facebook for work and he feared she would acciden- 
tally stumble onto his profile. Out of deference to his mother, Fred 
had yet to create an account on either site, but he was struggling to 
decide whether to keep abiding by his mother's restrictions going 
forward. Fred told me that his parents forbade him from Facebook 
and MySpace after seeing "all the stuff on the news." He said that his 
parents were afraid that "if I get on it, I'll be assaulted." Aaron chimed 


in to sarcastically remark, "He'll meet in real life with a lonely forty- 
year-old man." They both laughed at this idea. 

Neither Fred nor Aaron believed that joining MySpace would 
make them vulnerable to sexual predators, but they were still con- 
cerned about upsetting their mothers. Both felt that their mothers' 
fears were ill founded, but they also acknowledged that this fear was 
coming from a genuine place of concern. Although their demeanor 
was lighthearted, their discussion of their mothers' fears was solemn: 
they worried that their mothers worried. 

Although Aaron had violated his mother's restriction by joining 
MySpace, he was conscientious about his profile there. His profile 
was private and filled with fake information and a non-identifiable 
photo, in part to minimize his mother's concerns if she were to find 
out about the account and in part to minimize the likelihood of 
her finding out at all. In explaining his actions, Aaron spoke of pro- 
tecting his mom just as she had told me about her desire to protect 
him. He wanted to save his mother from fretting about him. This 
dynamic — children worrying about mothers and mothers worrying 
about children — was something I saw often. 

Like their parents, Aaron and Fred's understanding of MySpace 
was shaped by the concern that unfolded over sexual predators in the 
mid-20oos. They understood where their mothers' anxieties came 
from, even if they found the explanation illogical. Starting in 2005, 
news media across the United States began to suggest that MySpace 
was an unsafe place for youth, a place where sexual predators — 
understood to be older men with malicious intentions — sought out 
vulnerable children. 1 Although this was not the first time that the 
issue of online sexual predators emerged in the media, previous dis- 
cussions had taken place before the internet had become mainstream 
among teens and before social media had become a media phenom- 
enon. 2 Parents were warned to keep their kids away from MySpace 
completely, lest they become someone's prey. 

This message of danger was heard loud and clear. The teens I inter- 
viewed had all heard terrible stories of teenagers being harmed by older 


male sexual predators they met on MySpace. In particular, girls believed 
these stories and feared the possibility of being raped, stalked, kid- 
napped, or assaulted by strangers as a result of their participation online. 
Their fears were rooted not in personal experience but in media cover- 
age magnified by parental concerns. Teens often referred to the Dateline 
NBC TV show To Catch a Predator as proof that evil men are lurking 
behind every keyboard, ready to pounce on them. From news stories to 
school assemblies, teens were surrounded by messages about the dangers 
of predation. Although some teens rejected such messages as unfounded, 
others internalized them. Yet all were aware of the issue and were 
grappling with their feelings regarding the risks of social media. 

From the advent of social media, it has been impossible to talk about 
teens' engagement without addressing the topic of online safety and 
sexual predators. More than any other issue presented in this book, the 
topic of online safety generally — and sexual predators specifically — 
has played a significant role in configuring teens' relation to mediated 
communication, adults' attitudes toward teens' participation, and pol- 
icy discussions about social media regulation. Online safety is also a 
particularly complicated issue, in part because a culture of fear is 
omnipresent in American society, and no parent wants to take risks 
when it comes to their children's safety. 3 Statistics showing the improb- 
ability of harm fail to reassure those who are concerned. Even when 
highly publicized stories turn out to be fabrications, parents still imag- 
ine that somewhere, somehow, their child might fall victim to a night- 
marish fate. They are afraid because terrible things do happen to 
children. And although those violations most commonly take place in 
known environments — home, school, place of worship, and so on — 
the internet introduces an unknown space that is harder to compre- 
hend. Nothing feeds fear more than uncertainty. 

The Foundation of Our Fears 

Since the mid-1990s, alongside Utopian rhetoric about the oppor- 
tunities that the internet would enable, journalists have written sala- 
cious stories reviling online communities as sinister worlds where 

102 danger 

naive teens fall prey to assorted malevolent forces. 4 Some adults have 
also vilified teens for using the internet to indulge their darkest and 
wildest impulses — notably, their sexual desires — typically below the 
radar of parental supervision. 5 Those who portray the internet as a 
dangerous place for teenagers to inhabit seem to be motivated by 
several anxieties, but chief among them is a long-standing fear about 
teens' access to public places. 

Examining attitudes toward public spaces in the 1980s, geographer 
Gill Valentine documents how parental concerns about childhood 
safety — often discussed through the lens of "stranger danger" — have 
resulted in children being restricted from public spaces. 6 Public parks 
and malls were at the center of parental anxieties because they were 
seen as sites where teens could encounter harmful strangers. Not all 
of the focus was on dangerous older men; the visible presence of 
youth gangs was also a concern for many parents. Although unease 
about delinquents date back decades, 1980s and 1990s parents were 
especially fearful that manipulative peers would conscript vulnerable 
youth into gangs. 

Beyond broader concerns about childhood safety, fears about sex 
and sexuality have consistently dominated public debate, with topics 
like pornography, teenage pregnancy, and sexual predation regularly 
provoking public angst. Parks and other public spaces are consis- 
tently demonized as spaces where unseemly sexual conduct takes 
place after dark. News media magnifies fears about pedophiles and 
child rapists. Protecting children from public places — and protecting 
society from teenagers roaming the streets — has become a cultural 
imperative. As always happens whenever adults obsess over child 
safety, restrictions emerge and fearful rhetoric abounds. 

As moral panics about child safety take hold, politicians feel that 
they should take action — or at least capitalize on the appearance of 
doing so. They regularly campaign over safety issues and implement 
or expand laws targeted at curtailing the freedoms of minors. In the 
1980s and 1990s, this included curfew laws, anti-loitering laws, and 
truancy laws. To expunge teens from public places, cities and towns 

danger 103 

limited where, when, and for how long teens could gather or hang out 
in public places. Many believed that curfew laws would combat crime; 
a 1997 survey of US mayors found that 88 percent believed that youth 
curfews reduced crime. 7 It did not. As researchers began to examine 
the effects of these laws, they found that there was no correlation 
between curfews and youth crime. After analyzing the data, sociolo- 
gist Michael Males concluded that authority figures use curfews more 
as a symbol of social control than an actual crime deterrent. 8 In the 
late 1990s, when asked to justify teen curfew laws in light of data sug- 
gesting that they are ineffective, New Orleans mayor Marc Morial 
responded on the radio by saying, "It keeps teenagers off the streets. 
They need it, there's too many teenagers hanging around the streets." 9 
Despite no effect on reducing crime, cities continued to implement 
curfews, and aside from a few laws that have been declared unconsti- 
tutional, most laws restricting the mobility of minors remain in force. 

The same fears that shaped children's engagement with parks and 
other gathering places in the latter half of the twentieth century are 
now configuring networked publics created through social media. 
Adults worry that youth may be coerced into unseemly practices or 
connect with adults who will do them harm. For decades, adults have 
worked to limit teen access to and mobility within public spaces. 
Simultaneously, teens have worked to circumvent adult authority in 
order to have freedom and mobility. The internet limits adult control 
precisely because it makes it harder for parents to isolate youth from 
material that they deem unacceptable and from people whose values 
may differ from theirs or who are unfamiliar in other ways. Discom- 
fort with teen sexuality further fuels this general anxiety about teens' 
access to public spaces. American society despises any situation that 
requires addressing teen sexuality, let alone platforms that provide a 
conduit for teens to explore their desires. At a more acute level, fears 
are especially intense whenever the possibility arises that strangers 
might exploit teens sexually. 

Excluding teens from public places may give parents or politicians 
a sense of control, but it systematically disenfranchises youth from 

104 danger 

public life. Though authorities may see scaring teens as a valiant 
effort to protect vulnerable youth from danger, this approach can have 
significant consequences. As Valentine argues, "By reproducing a 
misleading message about the geography of danger, stranger-danger 
educational campaigns contribute towards producing public space as 
'naturally' or 'normally' an adult space where children are at risk from 
'deviant' others." 10 As a result, adult society isolates teens, limiting their 
opportunities to learn how to engage productively with public life. 

Each new cultural shift, media development, or emergent technol- 
ogy reinvigorates anxieties about youth safety. When fears escalate out 
of control, they produce what sociologist Stanley Cohen calls "moral 
panics" as adults worry about the moral degradation that will be 
brought on by the shifting social force. 11 A moral panic takes hold when 
the public comes to believe that a cultural artifact, practice, or popula- 
tion threatens the social order. Moral panics that surround youth typi- 
cally center on issues of sexuality, delinquency, and reduced competency. 
New genres of media — and the content that's shared through them — 
often trigger such anxieties. Eighteenth-century society saw novels as 
addictive and therefore damaging to young women's potential for find- 
ing a husband. 11 Introduced in the 1930s, comic books were seen not 
only as serving no educational purpose but as encouraging young peo- 
ple to get absorbed in fantasy worlds and to commit acts of violence. In 
the mid-1950s Elvis Presley's vulgar, gyrating hips prompted great con- 
cern that broadcasting him on TV would corrupt teens. 13 These are but 
a few of the unsubstantiated moral panics surrounding youth's engage- 
ment with earlier forms of popular media. 14 

Unsurprisingly, as the internet started gaining traction among 
youth, the same fears and anxieties that surrounded other publics 
and media genres reemerged in relation to networked publics and 
social media. 15 Girls' online social practices, in particular, are often 
the target of tremendous anxiety. 16 When MySpace launched and 
grew popular among teenagers — notably, teen girls — a widespread 
moral panic unfolded. 17 Many of the teens I met referenced To Catch 
a Predator, which fueled the media frenzy. In this television series, 

danger 105 

which ran from 2004 to 2007, adults would impersonate young teen- 
agers in online chatrooms in order to find men interested in talking 
with underage minors. After contact was initiated, the show's team 
would lure the men into meeting the "teen" in person only to be 
confronted by the TV show's host. The show was controversial, 
leading to significant legal and ethical questions as well as raising 
issues about the relevance of such stings on teen behavior. 18 

As the media was amplifying public concern, Congress introduced 
the Deleting Online Predators Act to restrict minors from interacting 
with strangers online; this bill would have forbidden young people 
from participating in online comment threads or posting content to 
public forums on computers paid for by government money, includ- 
ing those at schools and in libraries. 19 Even though the data suggested 
that dynamics surrounding sexual crimes against children did not 
remotely resemble what was depicted on To Catch a Predator, the US 
attorneys general began looking for technical interventions to stop 
the kinds of sexual predation depicted by the show. 20 Legislators 
never pursued these flawed approaches, yet their mere proposals 
reveal how powerful cultural furors over youth safety can be. 

Moral panics and the responses to them reconfigure the lives of 
youth in restrictive ways, more than any piece of legislation could 
possibly achieve. Legal scholar Larry Lessig argues that four forces 
regulate social systems: market, law, social norms, and technology or 
architecture. 11 Fear is often used in service of these forces. Companies 
sell fear to entice parents to buy products that will help them protect 
their children. Policymakers respond to fear by regulating children's 
access to public spaces, even when doing so accomplishes little. The 
media broadcasts fears, creating and reinforcing fearful social norms. 
And technologies are built to assuage or reproduce parents' fears. 
Given the cultural work done in the name of fear, it's astounding that 
young people have as much freedom as they do. 

Moral panics surrounding youth tend to reveal teens' conflicted 
position within American society. Authority figures simultaneously 
view teens as nuisances who must be managed and innocent children 

106 danger 

who must be protected. Teens are both public menaces and vulnera- 
ble targets. Society is afraid of them and for them. The tension 
between these two views shapes adults' relationship with teens and 
our societal beliefs about what it is that teenagers do. This schism 
leads to power struggles between teens and adults and shapes teens' 
activities and opportunities. Parental fear — and teens' response to 
it — complicates the lives of teens as they're coming of age. 

Incorporating Fear into Everyday Life 

On a gorgeous spring Saturday in 2007, I drove around a pre- 
dominantly white upper-middle-class suburb in the middle of Texas 
trying to find where teenagers might hang out. It was a newly planned 
community and there were no public parks or other obvious gather- 
ing spots. The school's parking lot was empty; no one gathered at the 
local church; a highway blocked any foot traffic to nearby shops. As 
I wove in and out of meticulously designed subdivisions, I started to 
wonder whether the town was deserted. There were plenty of cars in 
the driveways and many of the automatic sprinklers were busy water- 
ing the lawns, but there were very few people. After about a half an 
hour of driving and scouting, I had seen one father playing in a drive- 
way with two small children and another man walking a dog. I made 
a mental note to ask the teens I was interviewing about when and 
where they gathered and met new people. 

When I arrived at Sabrina's house at the edge of a picture-perfect 
cul-de-sac in this idyllic community, I casually remarked how odd 
it was that no one was outside. She looked at me strangely and 
asked me where they would go. I knew that, at fourteen, she didn't 
have a driver's license, so I asked her if she ever biked around the 
neighborhood. She told me that doing so was futile because all her 
friends lived at least ten miles away. Because of how the community 
assigned students to schools, she said, she knew no one who lived in 
walking or biking distance. She had once walked home from school 
just to see if she could, but it had taken her over two hours so she 
didn't try it again. She told me that there was a shopping mall in 

danger 107 

walking distance but that it required crossing a major road, which 
was scary. 

This prompted a conversation about the dangers of walking around 
town; she told me that safety was a big topic in her house. I wanted 
to understand what this meant in her family, given that her parents 
were both active in the military. I had to imagine that in their various 
tours of duty, they had been exposed to far riskier environments than 
I could imagine this pristine suburb to be. What I learned was that 
their experiences at war did not make them feel any safer at home. 
When I asked about the source of her parents' concern, Sabrina told 
me that they were news junkies and were afraid about what might 
happen to her based on the stories they'd heard on TV. Both Sabrina 
and her parents felt that it was better to be safe than sorry. From 
Sabrina's perspective, staying inside was much safer than walking 
around outside, and therefore, there was no point in trying to go out. 

As our conversation continued, it became clear that Sabrina 
believed that the internet posed even greater risks than her suburban 
neighborhood. While her online safety concerns were far greater 
than those of most of her peers, they played a significant role in shap- 
ing her mediated interactions. She liked to read messages in online 
communities, but she did not post messages or talk to anyone in 
online forums because "any person could be a forty-year-old man 
waiting to come and rape me or something. I'm really meticulous 
about that, because I've heard basically my whole life, don't talk to 
people you don't know online, 'cause they'll come kill you." Sabrina 
has never personally known any victims of such crimes, but she told 
me that she had seen episodes of Law and Order in which terrible 
things happened to people who talked to strangers online. For a long 
time, she was afraid to get on MySpace — the social network site pop- 
ular with her friends at the time — because she thought stalkers might 
find her. Her friends convinced her to join by pointing out that she 
could protect herself through privacy settings. Still, she worried that 
someone might stalk her, so she was very reticent. "It's still like a pos- 
sibility," she said, "because I mean anyone can just click on your 

108 danger 

profile and find out kind of what's going on." Sabrina feared that if 
she gave any indication of where she lived or where she went to school, 
some evil man might track her down and abduct her. As she explained 
her concerns, I could see genuine fear in her eyes. 

Pervasive talk of "stranger danger" shaped Sabrina's interactions 
with social media. Even though she was cautious and limited her 
online activities, she was terrified that something would go wrong. 
In telling me about all of the risks that she faced online, she cited 
stories she'd heard, referring to incidents that had received wide- 
spread news attention. Although many teens rolled their eyes when 
I raised the issue of online safety, these issues were very present and 
real for Sabrina. 22 

While Sabrina was more reluctant to engage in social media than 
most teens that I interviewed, the fears she expressed reflect concerns 
shared by many adults. When my colleagues and I surveyed a national 
sample of parents, 93 percent of them were concerned that their child 
might meet a stranger online who would hurt them even though only 
1 percent of them indicated that any of their children had ever met a 
stranger who had been hurtful. 23 Surprisingly to us, parents were no 
more afraid for their daughters than their sons. Also in the survey, 
before there was any reference to specific online dangers, parents con- 
sistently reported "sexual predators," "child molesters," "pedophiles," 
and "sex offenders" as their primary concern in an open-ended ques- 
tion about their biggest worries about their children's online partici- 
pation. For example, one parent explained, "My Biggest fear is that 
[my child] would become the 'target' of some online predator that 
intends to either: 1) lure my child away to meet them ALONE! Or 2) 
Convince my child to reveal personal information that could jeopar- 
dize his safety and that of my family while in our home." Via survey 
and in person, I heard variations of this fear repeated by parent after 
parent throughout the country. 

Although many teens think that parental fears are unwarranted, a 
sizable number — like Sabrina — share their parents' anxiety about 
sexual predators and worry for their own safety and for the safety of 

danger 109 

their siblings. When I asked Sabrina how common she thought 
online sexual predators were, she referred to To Catch a Predator as 
evidence of their pervasiveness. Although she had never known any- 
one who had been a victim of an online stalker or rapist, she was 
determined to be vigilant, both for herself and for her peers. 

Parental fear regarding sexual predators is understandable. No par- 
ent wants to imagine her or his child being harmed, and the potential 
cost of such a violation is unfathomable, regardless of how statisti- 
cally improbable such an event might be. Combine this with the 
media's magnification of the cultural mythos of the online sexual 
predator and it's no wonder that countless parents become hyperpro- 
tective without considering the costs of their actions. 14 But this dis- 
torted fear obscures the very real and costly risks that some youth do 
face. Untangling these issues requires stepping back and rethinking 
what we think we know regarding sexual predation. 

The Online Sexual Predator Myth 

Abduction, molestation, and rape reasonably top the charts of 
parental fears. From the Catholic Church predatory priest scandals 
to the 1993 Polly Klaas murder, society struggles to comprehend how 
adults can harm children. 25 Each new horrific story raises the blood 
pressure of parents and motivates policymakers to try and enact new 
restrictions that might prevent future abuse. 16 The approach that 
politicians take is rarely applied evenly. Although lawmakers are 
happy to propose interventions that limit youth's rights to access 
online spaces, they have not proposed laws to outlaw children's access 
to religious institutions, schools, or homes, even though these are 
statistically more common sites of victimization. 

A central challenge in addressing the sexual victimization of chil- 
dren is that the public is not comfortable facing the harrowing reality 
that strangers are unlikely perpetrators. Most acts of sexual violence 
against children occur in their own homes by people that those chil- 
dren trust. 17 Sexual predation did not begin with the internet, nor does 
it appear as though the internet has created a predatory epidemic. 18 

110 danger 

Internet-initiated sexual assaults are rare. The overall number of sex 
crimes against minors has been steadily declining since 1992, which 
also suggests that the internet is not creating a new plague. 19 At the 
same time, fear-based advertising campaigns continue to propagate 
the belief that the internet has introduced a new flood of predators 
into the living rooms of families across the United States. 

Consider a widely distributed poster produced by the Ad Council 
that ran from 2004 to 2007, which reads, "To the list of places you 
might find sexual predators add this one." These words appear above 
a grid of twelve images, eleven of which are public places like parks 
and streets; the twelfth, the image behind the words "this one," is 
a child's bedroom with a computer monitor. The message is clear: 
predators are lurking behind the computer and will enter your home 
through it. The television version of this campaign is even more nerve- 
racking. Alongside this message is a statistic: one in five children is 
sexually solicited online. 

This campaign, along with the many salacious news stories designed 
to use fear to convince the public about the imminent threat of sexual 
predation, is extraordinarily misleading. First, the picture of the bed- 
room with a computer monitor on its desk is intended to suggest that 
the computer is what puts children at risk. Many children are actually 
victimized in their bedrooms, but not because of the computer. 30 
Second, the statistic, commonly used by the National Center for 
Missing and Exploited Children and other safety groups, isn't what it 
might seem. It is a misappropriation of scholarly research intended 
to trigger anxiety by capitalizing on the public's assumption that sex- 
ual solicitations occur when sketchy older guys solicit prepubescent 

The one-in-five statistic comes from a 2000 report by the Crimes 
Against Children Research Center (CCRC), a highly respected insti- 
tution dedicated to understanding youth victimization. 31 In its study, 
CCRC surveyed youth to understand all internet-initiated sexual 
contact, including that which minors desired. It asked youth about 
"sexual solicitation," which was defined as including everything from 

danger 1 1 1 

flirtation to sexual harassment. The survey also asked youth about 
the age of the initiator. The study found that only 4 percent of solici- 
tations came from people known to be over twenty-five, whereas 
76 percent came from other minors and the rest came from adults 
aged eighteen to twenty-four. In 75 percent of the incidents reported, 
youth indicated that they were not upset or afraid as a result of the 
solicitation. Furthermore, in spite of parents' worries about the poten- 
tial of offline harm, 69 percent of solicitations involved no attempt at 
offline contact. In other words, although any sexual solicitation that 
a youth receives might be problematic, this statistic does not signal 
inherently dangerous encounters. 

With the rise of social media, many safety advocates presumed 
that sexual solicitations would spike. Repeating their study in 2006 
with an identical definition to allow for comparisons, CCRC found 
that one in seven minors had been sexually solicited online, a 5 per- 
cent decline from 2000. ,2 Other scholars also found that youth were 
far more likely to be problematically solicited in online environments 
that were previously popular but were no longer considered cool. 33 In 
other words, the teens who were getting into trouble were not those 
who were hanging out with friends in the online venues most popu- 
lar with their peers but those who were socializing with strangers 
elsewhere online. During the years in which MySpace was the most 
popular online environment, the teens who were engaging in risky 
encounters online were chatting in obscure chatrooms filled with 
people looking for trouble. 

Although sexual solicitation as it is colloquially understood is rare, 
it's important to understand the smaller number of incidents in 
which youth are violated or harassed, coerced or manipulated. These 
incidents are unacceptable, and it is important to take steps to pre- 
vent any child from ever being victimized. But doing so requires 
understanding the youth most at risk. In examining cases in which 
unwanted sexual solicitations have occurred, it's clear that these cases 
are not random. Teens who are especially at risk are often engaged in 
a host of risky sexual encounters online. There's a strong correlation 

112 danger 

between risky online practices and psychosocial problems, family 
issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and trouble in school. In other words, 
teens who are struggling in everyday life also engage in problematic 
encounters online. Rather than putting all youth at risk, social media 
creates a new site where risky behaviors are made visible and troubled 
youth engage in new types of problematic activity. 34 

Sexual solicitations are disturbing, but most parents are more 
concerned about the potential for their child to be physically sexually 
abused. Typically, the vision that parents conjure involves an inno- 
cent girl being lured into conversation by an older man who deceives 
her about his age and then psychologically manipulates her to trust 
him and distrust others. The discussion of sexual predation often 
includes the notions of psychological manipulation (also known as 
"grooming") and deception, abduction and rape. But by examining 
police records and interviewing youth, CCRC found that when 
adults employ the internet in order to commit a sex crime involving 
a minor, it rarely takes that form. 

Not all cases involving the internet involved a stranger. Looking 
specifically at the small number of arrests for internet-facilitated sex- 
ual crimes, CCRC found that approximately one in five (18 percent) 
involved victims' family members or offline acquaintances such as 
family friends or neighbors. 35 Even in cases in which the perpetrator 
was not someone that the victim initially knew, the perpetrator rarely 
deceived the teen. More often than not, the abused teens were aware 
of the offender's age when they chatted online. Surprisingly, many 
teens were more deceptive about their age, intentionally portraying 
themselves as older. In criminal cases that prompted an arrest, the 
teens involved were typically in high school and the men they were 
encountering were most commonly in their twenties or early thirties. 
Their online conversations were sexual in nature, and the teens knew 
that sex was in the cards before meeting the offender in person. These 
abused teens believed that they were in love and often had sex with 
the offender on multiple occasions. As CCRC explained, these 
encounters often took the legal form of statutory rape. 

danger 113 

Statutory rape is a criminal offense to prevent adults from using 
their status, experience, and authority to manipulate youth into 
engaging in sexual acts. At the same time, there is a significant differ- 
ence between an abduction rape scenario and a statutory rape sce- 
nario. In the latter, youth often believe that they should have the right 
to consent to such an encounter, even if the law and their parents 
disagree.' 6 This difference matters because it affects what kinds of 
interventions are needed. What motivates teens to engage in these 
power-laden sexual encounters is often a desire for attention and vali- 
dation in light of problems at home, mental health issues, or a history 
of abuse. Although the dynamics surrounding individual cases are 
often complex — and there are both legal and social issues at play — the 
teenagers who are victimized are at risk in different ways than is 
typically imagined by mainstream media. Helping combat this 
form of sexual exploitation requires a different model than the one 
presented by To Catch a Predator. 

In order to intervene successfully, it is essential to understand the 
dynamics that surround the sexual victimization of children. What's 
needed to combat grooming, deception, and abduction rape is very 
different than what's needed to address the underlying issues that 
motivate a young person to engage in risky sexual encounters or to 
deliberately put themselves in vulnerable situations. Language that 
positions youth as passive victims diverts the public's attention from 
the marginalized youth who are the most common victims of sexual 
abuse. By focusing media attention on potential sex crimes commit- 
ted by evil, older men, the mythical construction of the online sexual 
predator can obscure the unhealthy sexual encounters that youth are 
more likely to experience. 

Unhealthy Sexual Encounters 

In 2011, Rolling Stone published an expose of a young woman 
named Kirsten "Kiki" Ostrenga that depicted what can happen when 
teen sexuality, attention, social media, and mental health issues crash 
headlong into one another. 37 After her family moved from Illinois to 

114 danger 

Florida, Kirsten struggled to make friends. When classmates started 
teasing her for being an outsider, she stopped trying to fit in, prefer- 
ring to wear what she described as "scene queen" clothing. In order to 
find a community of like-minded souls, she turned to the internet, 
where she developed a digital persona whom she called Kiki Kanni- 
bal. Online, she sold jewelry and shared modeling photos, collected 
followers and posted fashion advice. 

When she was thirteen, Kiki met a young man by the name of 
Danny Cespedes on MySpace. Kiki was desperate for attention and 
validation when she met Danny, a teen boy who told her that he was 
seventeen even though he had recently turned eighteen. Kiki and 
Danny chatted online for a while. As Kiki's fourteenth birthday 
arrived, Danny asked her mom for permission to meet Kiki. They 
met at a local mall on her birthday, with Kiki's mom in attendance. 
Kiki's mom was impressed by Danny's politeness and supported the 
relationship. The two started dating, and Danny regularly spent 
hours at Kiki's house. 

One night, Danny was acting drunk, so Kiki's parents allowed 
him to spend the night at their house. After everyone had gone to 
bed, he forced himself onto Kiki. Although she was uncomfortable 
with the encounter, their relationship continued. As time went on, 
Danny started acting more and more bizarre. Kiki's parents began to 
worry, and eventually, Kiki tried to break up with Danny. He 
attempted suicide. Their relationship became rocky, and, through a 
series of conversations online, Kiki learned that Danny had dated a 
series of girls aged thirteen to fifteen, many of whom had had similar 
forced sexual encounters with him. She eventually told her parents 
what happened, and they called the police. After collecting extensive 
evidence, the police attempted to arrest Danny on seven felony 
counts of statutory rape. When they cornered him, he threw himself 
over a nearby railing. He died on impact. As Rolling Stone reported, 
"Kiki's rapist and first love was dead." 

The article clearly portrays Danny Cespedes as a disturbed indi- 
vidual, but the article also highlights how Kiki believed that she was 

danger 115 

madly in love with the boy who raped her. This dynamic, far from 
being rare, is often the reality in cases of statutory rape. By all 
accounts, Danny manipulated and hurt a series of young girls, prey- 
ing on their vulnerability and then abusing them. But Danny was 
also the product of abuse. He came from a chaotic household in 
which prison, violence, and threats were common threads. His father 
had been deported after being convicted of a sexual crime against a 
minor. Kiki's parents had felt bad for Danny, not realizing that he 
was continuing the cycle of abuse. 

The internet played multiple roles in this story. It was through the 
internet that Kiki found Danny, but it was also through the internet 
that the other girls found each other and learned that they were not 
alone. All the girls that Danny abused had willingly connected with 
him online and had believed themselves to be in love. Because of 
their feelings toward Danny, they suppressed their feelings about his 
sexual violations until they learned that it was a pattern. 

Although Danny sexually assaulted Kiki when he forced himself 
on her, the police chose to address this as statutory rape, because the 
age difference alone meant that he was violating the law, making it 
much easier to prove. For many teens, statutory rape laws can be 
complicated and controversial. Although they are designed to protect 
young people from predatory acts — such as Danny's — age differ- 
ences alone do not necessarily imply abuse. 

In 2009, I interviewed a black fifteen-year-old named Sydnia who 
lived in Nashville. Unlike many of her peers, she used MySpace to 
meet new people, notably other lesbians. One day, while downtown, 
she approached a woman whom she recognized from MySpace. They 
had been talking and flirting online but had never met, nor had 
Sydnia intended to meet her. During that chance encounter, Sydnia 
got the woman's number and they started texting. Over time, they 
became lovers, and when I met Sydnia the two had been dating for 
over a month. Although Sydnia obscured her girlfriend's age when 
discussing their relationship with me, she made a passing reference to 
the fact that her girlfriend could go to bars even though she could not, 

116 clanger 

making her girlfriend at least twenty-one. As we talked about their 
relationship, I learned that Sydnia had introduced her girlfriend to her 
mother and that her mother approved, enough even to tease her about 
the relationship; teasing was a central component of their mother- 
daughter bond. Yet Sydnia clearly recognized that her relationship 
was taboo. When I asked about her girlfriend's age, she balked and 
indicated that my question was off-limits. Sydnia was aware that the 
age difference mattered, if not to her, then at least to an outsider. At a 
different point in our conversation, we talked about online safety, and 
Sydnia told me that she had heard about online sexual predators but 
had never known anyone who was attacked by them. I didn't have the 
heart to tell Sydnia that, taken from another perspective, her girl- 
friend could be viewed as an online predator. 

Unlike Kiki and Sydnia, most of the teens I interviewed met 
their older boyfriends or girlfriends through friends, family, religious 
activities, or in other face-to-face encounters. Although parents in 
more privileged communities broadly condemned teens' relationships 
with older individuals, attitudes regarding age and teen sexuality are 
not universal. In many lower-income and immigrant communities I 
visited, it was widely acceptable for a teen girl to date an older man. 
Some of the parents that I met even encouraged such relationships, 
indicating that an older man would be more mature and responsible 
than a teenage boy and that he might take care of her. Even though 
those in the more privileged communities I visited often ridiculed 
such a perspective, I couldn't help but find it ironic that the most 
popular young adult fiction book in those same communities at that 
time was Twilight, a love story focused on a teen girl and a 104-year-old 
vampire in which their age difference is a central plot point. 

In some communities, an age difference is seen as inherently suspi- 
cious, but it does not always result in harmful relationships. Nor are 
same-age relationships inherently healthy. No parent wants his or her 
child to be exploited or abused, but age is not necessarily a defining fac- 
tor in problematic relationships. Some teenagers develop unhealthy rela- 
tionships with older people, but some also develop deeply problematic if 

danger 117 

not abusive relationships with their peers. Unfortunately, teen dating 
violence is not uncommon, and it typically involves teens in relation- 
ships with same-age peers. 38 

Age differences may be taboo, but teens' interest in adults is not 
new. Furthermore, the taboo of a marked age difference often fuels 
teens' interest in older people. 39 Fiction often romanticizes star-crossed 
lovers of different ages, and countless vampire tales recount older 
men being enamored of teen girls. Teens have long fantasized about 
older celebrities, and even teachers and countless teen films reproduce 
these frames. Teens have also consistently engaged in risky activities 
in an effort to get attention and validation from older people. My age 
cohort trafficked in fake college IDs so that we could attend local frat 
parties. Getting attention from older people can often be a source of 
status for teens. None of this is to say that there aren't unhealthy rela- 
tionships between people of different ages, but focusing on age can 
obscure as much as it reveals. 

A Parent's Worst Nightmare 

The internet may make it easier for adults and teens to engage in 
inappropriate conversations, but a conversation with a stranger does 
not inherently put youth at risk. For all the ways that the internet 
allows people to connect, there is still a physical gap between inter- 
locutors. Unlike teens' encounters with predatory adults in face-to- 
face settings, it is not easy for an online conversation to move offline 
without a teen's knowledge. Abduction by strangers is rare: when 
children are abducted, it is usually by a noncustodial parent. Yet the 
prospect of abduction by a stranger sends chills down the spine of 
any parent and sends communities into overdrive to get the word out 
because the first twenty-four hours matter tremendously in recover- 
ing a missing child. When a child disappears, people drum up media 
attention in the hopes of finding the child before anything worse 
happens. The American public often hears about abductions in this 
crucial window of time, but not all reported cases turn out to be what 
they may at first seem. 

118 clanger 

In February 2006, thirteen-year-old Alexandra Nicole Dimarco 
and fifteen-year-old Alexis Anne Beyer disappeared in the middle of 
the night from the same condominium complex in Los Angeles. All 
signs seemed to point to abduction: the girls left behind their wallets 
and prescription medication, and they had not packed anything of 
sentimental value. The girls' parents contacted the media, informing 
a journalist that the girls had been talking with strangers on MySpace. 
A headline in a Los Angeles paper read "Mothers Think Girls Were 
Lured Away by Suitors." 40 Media coverage was swift, 
and the girls' pictures appeared on local television and across the town. 

Meanwhile, the police began their investigation in the hopes of 
finding the girls as quickly as possible. Given the parents' reports of 
trouble involving MySpace, the police contacted the company. The 
company began working with local law enforcement to help. Although 
the parents had publicly pegged MySpace as the conduit, both girls 
had stopped logging onto the social network site a week before they 
disappeared. Alexis's mother told the media that she had banned her 
daughter from using the site after Alexis had allegedly met men on 
MySpace who had been calling the house looking for her before she 

As more information emerged, the initial portrait of abducted 
friends grew murky. In talking with MySpace representatives, I learned 
that the girls logged into their accounts two hours after they'd disap- 
peared — from a computer in another part of Los Angeles. Using this 
information, police officers were able to identify the location of the 
girls, and they sent out a rescue team. At that point, the public still 
believed that the girls had been abducted, but what investigators found 
through MySpace suggested otherwise. The content and intensity of 
messages between the two girls suggested that they were lovers, that 
their parents disapproved of their relationship, and that they had been 
forbidden from seeing each other or communicating online. 

When the police arrived at the girls' suspected location, they found 
that the girls were safe, that they had chosen to run away, and that 
one in particular was not interested in going home. No scary, older 

danger 119 

male sexual predator had lured them away. They'd run away together 
to get away from their parents. 

Relying on information from the girls' parents and wanting to 
help, the media was quick to accept the conclusion that the girls had 
been abducted but did little to correct the original breathless story. 
News organizations reported that the police had found the girls but 
did not provide details about what had actually happened. In talking 
with families in the Los Angeles region, I found that many had heard 
that the girls had been abducted because of MySpace, but no one I 
met had learned that they had actually run away. 

It's not clear whether the girls' parents knew that they had run 
away when they told the police that the girls had been abducted, nor 
is it clear whether they referenced MySpace to increase the likelihood 
that journalists would cover the story, but the combination prompted 
immediate action by both law enforcement and the company while 
also triggering a media circus. In capitalizing on people's fear of new 
technologies and abduction, stories like this may prompt action, but 
they also help to reproduce the culture of fear. They leave the public 
with an even more exaggerated conception of the risks that youth 
face while failing to address the dynamics that prompt teens to 
engage in risky behaviors in the first place. 

Society often blames technology for putting youth at risk, but the 
traces that youth leave behind can be valuable in making certain that 
they are safe. When Alexandra and Alexis ran away, technology's 
traces and MySpace's willingness to collaborate with law enforce- 
ment enabled the police to track down the two girls extraordinarily 
quickly. The public never saw this side of the story. 

Blaming the Technology 

In February 2007, a girl in Colorado named Tess killed her mother 
with the help of her boyfriend, Bryan. When the news was reported 
on TV, the takeaway was, "A girl with MySpace kills her mother." 
The implication was that Tess had become deviant because of her use 
of MySpace and that this had prompted her to murder her mother. 

120 clanger 

This was not the first time that the public blamed communication 
or entertainment media for inciting a teen to kill. In 1999, video 
games and the band Marilyn Manson supposedly prompted two 
boys to shoot their classmates at Columbine High School in Little- 
ton, Colorado. 41 After two young women in New Jersey died by sui- 
cide during a wave of teenage deaths in 1987, the community blamed 
Metallica because one of the girls left behind a letter referencing the 
song "Fade to Black," which directly addresses emptiness and pain 
and makes implicit overtures to suicide. 42 Even though the techno- 
logical platform provided by MySpace is different than the content 
produced by popular musicians, it is not uncommon for people to try 
to make sense of teens' violent acts by turning to the media that they 

Curious to learn more about Tess, I decided to see whether her 
MySpace page was publicly accessible; it was. What I saw was heart- 
breaking. For months, she had documented her mother's alcoholic 
rages through public postings. She left detailed accounts of how her 
mother physically abused her and psychologically tormented her. Her 
comments and messages were flush with emotional outpourings, frus- 
tration and rage, depression and confusion. In one post, she explained: 

Everyone knows the story of me and my mom . . . and everyone 
knows how much I've tried to fix it my whole life. And every- 
one knows how it never works. I tried to get her help. I tried 
moving to California. I tried moving back to Colorado. I tried 
moving in with CJ, Hassan, Jermy and Bryan, then Burt and 
Bryan. Then moving back home with Bryan. And its just never 
enough. I could write a book about how confusing it is trying to 
please that woman . . . and trying to do whatever I can to get her 
to stop drinking. Like honestly, I'd do anything. But nothing 
really ever works. And the shit that goes on at home, frays out 
and effects every part of my life. 

Tess documented her experiences and emotional confusion exten- 
sively. On MySpace, she described her struggles with being bipolar, 


her decision to start abusing alcohol, and her own confusion about 
how to make her life work. Her friends had left comments, offering 
emotional support and asking after her. But it was clear that they were 
in above their heads. In scouring the comments, I found no indica- 
tion that an adult had been present in any of those conversations. 

After Tess's arrest, her profile turned into a public discussion board. 
Acquaintances and friends alike were leaving all sorts of comments — 
hateful, supportive, and concerned. Reading through them, I found 
that one girl, who appeared to be a close friend of Tess's, was regularly 
defending Tess to detractors. This friend's page was also public, filled 
with heart-wrenching confusion, hurt, and uncertainty. Unable to 
ignore this girl's pain, I reached out to her to make sure she had sup- 
port behind her. We exchanged a few messages as I offered Colorado- 
based resources for her to get help. She told me about how all of Tess's 
friends knew that Tess's mom beat her, but no one knew what to do. 
No adult was willing to listen. This young woman went on to tell me 
that some of Tess's friends had reported the MySpace posts to teach- 
ers but that, because the school blocked MySpace, teachers said that 
they were unable to look into the matter. Lost, and distrustful of 
adults in their community, her friends didn't know where else to go. 

As the story unfolded, I learned that social workers had been 
informed of potential abuse from teachers but that nothing was done. 
Apparently, there wasn't enough physical evidence to make this case 
a priority. Social services had not looked at her MySpace page or 
talked with her friends. 

Even in the aftermath, the teens in Tess's life felt powerless, unable 
even to get support in their community. I counseled Tess's friend into 
seeking support from a trained adult, unable to be a proper counselor for 
her from afar. I gave her the names of hotlines and counselors who might 
be able to help. I offered her information she could give to her friends. 
She clearly had no adult to whom she could turn. Instead, she was lash- 
ing out at those who attacked her online as her sole way of coping. 

When teens are struggling like Tess's friend was, they often turn to 
social media. Some engage in risky behavior, but many more make 

122 danger 

visible the challenges they are facing: crying out for help through 
their posts and behavior online. All too often, their pleas go unseen 
or are ignored. Sometimes, this is because those posts are anony- 
mous, which make them impossible to track down. But in other 
cases, no one bothers to look or ask questions. 

In September 2012, Canadian fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd 
posted a nine-minute video on YouTube entitled "My Story: Strug- 
gling, Bullying, Suicide, Self Harm," in which she used note cards to 
describe how she was sexually harassed and blackmailed by an anony- 
mous individual online and tormented by classmates at school. 43 She 
described being tricked into sexual acts, being beaten by girls at 
school, and attempting suicide. She accounted for her insecurity and 
anxiety as well as her attempts to get help. Although the description 
that she provided for this video states, "I'm struggling to stay in this 
world, because everything just touches me so deeply. I'm not doing 
this for attention. I'm doing this to be an inspiration and to show that 
I can be strong," the final two cards she displayed read, "I have nobody 
... I need someone : (" and "My name is Amanda Todd. ..." A month 
later, Amanda died by suicide at her home in British Columbia. After- 
ward, her video spread widely. 

The internet is not just a place where people engage in unhealthy 
interactions. It's also a place where people share their pain. Although 
not all youth who are struggling cry out for help online, many do. And 
when they do, someone should be there to recognize those signs and 
react constructively. Increasingly, there are tremendous opportunities 
to leverage online traces to intervene meaningfully in teens' lives. But 
it requires creating a society in which adults are willing to open their 
eyes and pay attention to youth other than their own children. 

Eyes on the Digital Street 

The risks that youth face online are not evenly distributed. Teens 
who are most at risk online are often struggling everywhere. And 
although many parents are deeply involved in their own children's 
lives, not all teens are lucky enough to have engaged or stable parents. 

danger 123 

During my research, I met teens who looked after addicted parents, 
homeless teens struggling to survive, and teens whose parents were 
too focused on their work to notice them. All too often, teens who 
engage in risky behaviors do so in reaction to what's happening at 
home or in the hopes that their parents might notice. 

In 2008, researchers Melissa Wells and Kimberly Mitchell surveyed 
youth about potentially risky online behaviors. They found that 15 per- 
cent of a nationally representative sample of American youth with 
online access reported experiencing sexual or physical abuse or high 
parental conflict in the preceding year. 44 These young people were 
labeled as "high risk" and were disproportionately likely to be older, 
African American, and/or not living with their biological parents. 
They also showed significantly more problematic online behavior than 
the rest of the sample. Youth reporting online victimization or experi- 
ences with sexual solicitation show similar risk factors as those who are 
vulnerable in offline contexts: they might experience sexual or physical 
abuse, parental conflict, substance use, low caregiver bonding, depres- 
sion, sexual aggression, and other negative issues. Regular development 
of close relationships via the internet is also correlated with problems 
offline, including a poor home environment in which there is conflict 
or a poor caregiver-child relationship, depression, previous sexual 
abuse, and delinquency. The presence of unhealthy offline relation- 
ships may thus increase the risk of internet-based sexual victimization. 

It can become a vicious cycle. Engaging in risky online behaviors — 
including speaking with strangers about sex — is intrinsically problem- 
atic as well as a signal of broader problems. Youth who are struggling 
are more likely to use less widely known services and to seek more 
attention from people they meet online, while those who have experi- 
enced negative offline encounters were 2.5 times more likely to receive 
unwanted sexual solicitation than other youth. 45 When teens are 
crashing, they engage in activities that are more likely to magnify 
their troubles. And when we see teens whose online activities look 
problematic, they're often using technology to make visible a broader 
array of problems that they're facing in every part of their lives. 

124 danger 

Although most teens are doing okay, those who aren't really aren't. 
While, as discussed in the chapter on privacy, many teens encode 
what's happening in their lives so that it's not visible, others are quite 
open about the troubles they face. In these situations, the digital 
environment becomes a platform for displaying their pain to the 
world. When we see these teens' outbursts, it's easy to blame the 
technology because, for most of us, truly at-risk youth are otherwise 
invisible. Offline, those from abusive homes or facing mental health 
crises are often struggling in isolation or in an environment where no 
adult is paying attention. Online, they can be visible. And what they 
share in plain sight is often frightening for people who imagine that 
childhood is always a precious experience to be cherished. Although 
the internet may not be an inherently dangerous place, it's certainly a 
place where we can see kids who are in danger, if we are willing 
to look. 

In protecting their own children, many parents turn a blind eye to 
the struggles others are facing; they go out of their way to keep their 
children from encountering those who are struggling. Moving to the 
suburbs or into a gated community are just two examples of how 
wealthier parents have historically tried to isolate their children from 
the rawness of less privileged environments. And when mental health 
issues seep through, many people try to ignore what's happening. 
One of the reasons that the parents I met fear the internet is because 
they believe it makes it harder for them to set boundaries and isolate 
themselves and their teens from communities in which the values are 
different or teens are not doing well. This results in fewer adults 
being willing to help those who are seriously struggling. And when 
the message that teens get is one of isolation, few teens know what to 
do, where to go, or how to cope when things do go wrong. 

Parents and society as a whole often use fear to keep youth from 
engaging in practices that adults see as dangerous. This can backfire, 
undermining trust and resulting in lost opportunities. I grew up with 
Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" messages alongside images like cracked 
eggs in a frying pan with the caption, "This is your brain on drugs." 

danger 125 

Like many of my peers, I was taught to fear drugs. In rebellion, some 
of my classmates began experimenting with marijuana in early high 
school. Once they realized that pot didn't destroy their brains any 
more than alcohol did, many became vocal critics of the war on drugs, 
convinced that adults were trying to dupe them. Unfortunately, the 
all-encompassing "drugs are bad" message left no room for nuance, 
and I watched as some of my classmates began exploring cocaine and 
then crystal methamphetamine with the logic that these drugs must 
be equivalent to marijuana, since they had been lumped together in 
the war on drugs. I watched numerous classmates struggle with 
addiction for years. Looking back, I'm frustrated by how the fear- 
driven abstinence-only message regarding drugs left no room for 
meaningful conversation, let alone a framework for understanding 
abuse or addiction. When adults jump to fear and isolationism as 
their solution to managing risk, they often undermine their credibil- 
ity and erode teens' trust in the information that adults offer. 

Many teens turn to networked publics to explore a wider world, and 
that often includes a world that their parents want to protect them 
from. When parents create cocoons to protect their children from 
potential harms, their decision to separate themselves and their chil- 
dren from what's happening outside their household can have serious 
consequences for other youth, especially those who lack strong sup- 
port systems. Communities aren't safe when everyone turns inward; 
they are only safe when people work collectively to help one another 
and those around them. In The Death and Life of Great American Cit- 
ies, urban theorist Jane Jacobs argues that society benefits when every- 
one is willing to contribute their attention to the dynamics of the 
street. The more eyes there are on the street, the safer a community is. 

Jacobs is arguing not for a form of surveillance in which powerful 
entities regulate social behavior through an unwanted gaze but for 
one in which people collectively look out for vulnerable populations 
and intervene when needed. People may appear to ignore a child bik- 
ing down the street, but in a healthy community, if the child falls off 
the bike, concerned individuals will come out to help because they 

126 danger 

are all paying attention. Young people need the freedom to explore 
and express themselves, but we all benefit from living in an environ- 
ment in which there's a social safety net where people come together 
to make sure that everyone's doing okay. Far from being an abuse of 
power, Jacob's notion of shared eyes on the street provides a necessary 
form of structural support in an individualistic society. 

Through social media, teenagers have created digital streets that 
help define the networked publics in which they gather. In an effort 
to address online safety concerns, most adults respond by trying to 
quarantine youth from adults, limit teens' engagement online, or 
track teens' every move. Rhetoric surrounding online predation is 
used to drum up fear and justify isolation. But neither restrictions 
nor either adult or institutional surveillance will help those who are 
seriously struggling. Instead of trying to distance ourselves from 
teens in this new media, we have a unique opportunity to leverage 
visibility and face the stark and complex dynamics that shape teens' 
lives head on. If we want to make the world a safer place, we need 
people to pay attention to what's happening in their communities, 
not just in their households. We need concerned adults and young 
people to open their eyes on the digital street and reach out to those 
who are struggling. And we need to address the underlying issues 
that are at the crux of risky behaviors rather than propagate distract- 
ing myths. Fear is not the solution; empathy is. 

danger 127 

5 bullying 

is social media amplifying 
meanness and cruelty? 

When I met white seventeen-year-old Abigail at a Starbucks in North 
Carolina, I was struck by her poise. A competitive swimmer, she was 
applying to highly respected colleges like Georgetown and Brown. 
She really liked Brown, but it didn't have a swim team as strong as 
those at less academically oriented schools actively recruiting her. In 
explaining her decision-making process, she showed the elegance and 
confidence of a typical upper-middle-class white teen trying to 
impress an adult. As our conversation continued and veered into 
more personal subjects, I started to notice self-doubt, particularly 
when issues of friendship and interpersonal conflict emerged. 

While I was talking to Abigail, my collaborator, Alice Marwick, was 
interviewing her fourteen-year- old sister across the room, out of ear- 
shot. When I would glance over at their conversation, I couldn't help 
but reflect on how different the sisters' demeanor was. Unlike Abigail, 
Ashley appeared uninterested in composing herself for adult approval. 
Her cross-armed slouch and nonconformist fashion suggested a more 
rebellious spirit. I began to wonder how the sisters got along. 1 

At one point, as I was asking Abigail about her relationship with 
her parents on Facebook, she brought up her sister. Almost as a side 
note, Abigail mentioned that her mother treated her differently than 
Ashley. I asked her to explain. Her expression changed and she sighed 
in a way that suggested a long-standing household issue. Abigail told 


me that she is the darling of the house and that her mother doesn't 
trust Ashley. Immediately after saying that, Abigail quickly and ner- 
vously attempted to justify her mother's differential treatment by 
highlighting how Ashley always managed to get into trouble. 

Abigail explained that when Ashley and her friends were in fourth 
grade, they used an instant messenger to say mean things about 
another girl at school. 

And then the other girl found out about it and it became a 
bullying thing and my mom was like that's not acceptable, so 
[Ashley] was like banned from IM. Then when she was old 
enough so she could get a Facebook — and she wanted to get a 
Facebook because her friends were getting Facebooks — [Mom] 
got one too just so she could monitor [Ashley]. 

Abigail recounted stories of her sister getting into trouble at school 
and how Ashley would threaten to put embarrassing information on 
Facebook to humiliate Abigail in front of her friends. While explain- 
ing all of this, Abigail fidgeted uncomfortably, so I tried not to push 
the issue too far. Later, after I turned the recorder off and while we 
were waiting for Alice and Ashley to finish talking, I casually asked 
about Ashley again. More comfortable now, Abigail told me that she 
saw her sister as a bully. She didn't trust her sister, but at the same 
time, she felt sorry for her. From Abigail's perspective, Ashley didn't 
seem to understand that she hurt people whenever she lashed out. 
Abigail had tried — and, from her perspective, failed — to help Ashley 
see the consequences of her attitude and behavior, but she had since 
given up on helping her. Her mother and those in her school focused 
more on restricting and punishing Ashley. This made Ashley more 
frustrated and less cooperative. 

While I was talking with Abigail, Ashley told Alice that there was 
very little outright bullying in her community; the meanness and cru- 
elty she saw at school often took the form of what she called "indirect 
bullying" — gossip and rumors — or "drama." Ashley told Alice about 
various incidents that took place at school and among classmates, such 

bullying 129 

as when boys mocked cheerleaders for their eating habits. Gossip about 
who might be pregnant, who was hooking up with whom, and who 
did what while drunk appeared to be standard fare. Ashley also 
described the cliques at school, the normalized fashion statements 
meant to show who was in and who was out, the dynamics of good and 
bad attention, and the politics of "frenemies" — friends who are some- 
times enemies when faced with competition, jealousy, and mistrust. 

As Alice and I shared notes about our interviews, Alice realized 
that Ashley used gossip and aggression to enforce her own social 
mores while simultaneously rejecting the idea that she was initiating 
any social conflict. Ashley's joyous recounting of school gossip paral- 
leled her stated love of watching TV characters engage in drama and 
her general appreciation for knowing what's happening in people's 
lives. She liked being in the middle of what was happening. At the 
same time, Ashley told Alice that she thought her mother and sister 
were overreacting to the fights she got into and that her actions were 
justifiable, given how others treated her. When conflict emerged, 
Ashley saw other people as the ones causing problems while she was 
just left to react; although she didn't mind reacting, she couldn't see 
why people got upset by how she reacted. 

Ashley's behaviors — and Ashley and Abigail's divergent percep- 
tions of those behaviors — reveal some of the tensions at the heart of 
how both teens and adults experience and perceive conflict. The lan- 
guage of bullying and drama often emerges, but the practices involved 
range wildly. Both bullying and drama have imprecise definitions, 
and technologically mediated meanness and cruelty is interwoven 
with school conflict. 

In communities like Ashley and Abigail's, the rise of social media 
has prompted tremendous concern about "cyberbullying." Although 
the data suggests otherwise, the assumption among many parents and 
journalists is that social media radically increases bullying. 1 In light of 
highly publicized — but often inaccurately portrayed — cases of teen 
suicide seemingly driven by peer cruelty, combating bullying has 
become a national obsession. 3 Lawmakers have begun to implement 

130 bullying 

anti-bullying laws, and as of 2012, forty-eight states and the federal 
government have implemented statutes to address bullying, many of 
which include provisions specifically addressing online interactions. 4 
Nuance often gets lost in the panic. News reports do not explain, 
for example, why teens like Abigail and Ashley use different language 
to describe interpersonal conflict or why the dynamics that they 
describe are so common. Journalists latch onto and publicize data 
that suggest that the majority of youth are bullied, with little meth- 
odological or analytical consideration for what this implies. And few 
people consider how broader cultural practices and attitudes help 
shape teens' logic. Untangling these dynamics is essential for under- 
standing what is at stake and for developing intervention strategies. 

Defining Bullying in a Digital Era 

Although scholars have examined different aspects of youth-related 
meanness and cruelty over the past four decades, there is no universal 
definition of bullying. Researchers continue to disagree about how to 
define and address bullying, but the most commonly accepted defini- 
tion comes from Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus. In an attempt to 
differentiate bullying from other forms of youth aggression in the 
1970s, Olweus narrowed in on three components that he saw as cen- 
tral to bullying in particular: aggression, repetition, and imbalance 
in power. s He argued that youth aggression was bullying when the 
situation involved all three components. Those who subscribe to 
Olweus's definition view bullying as a practice in which someone of 
differential physical or social power subjects another person to 
repeated psychological, physical, or social aggression. This matches 
the stereotypical case of bullying involving a big kid repeatedly phys- 
ically tormenting a little kid or a popular teen repeatedly spreading 
nasty rumors about an outcast. 

Accepting Olweus's definition means recognizing that individual 
acts of harassment or one-off fights are not bullying. Nor are recipro- 
cal acts of relational aggression, such as when former best friends 
begin spreading rumors about each other in response to a recent 

bullying 131 

fight. This does not mean that these practices aren't hurtful — they 
certainly are — but that repetition and differential power are central 
to Olweus's definition. As such, these are hurtful acts of peer aggres- 
sion, but they are not bullying. 

The public does not necessarily embrace scholarly definitions of 
bullying. More often, adults use bullying as an umbrella term. Dur- 
ing my fieldwork, I met parents who saw every act of teasing as bul- 
lying, even when their children did not. At the other extreme, news 
media has taken to describing serious criminal acts of aggression by 
teens as bullying rather than using terms like stalking, harassment, 
or abuse. Ironically, teens often use the term bullying to refer to the 
kinds of incidents that Olweus described while adults and news 
media use this term far more loosely. 

When Amanda Todd — the fifteen-year-old Canadian girl dis- 
cussed in the previous chapter — died by suicide after posting a video 
about her situation to YouTube, the media widely reported her death 
as being a result of bullying. Although bullying played a role in 
Todd's story, the video she shared describes ongoing stalking, sexual 
harassment, and blackmail by a stranger, followed by a whirlwind of 
public shaming, harassment, and physical torment. She described 
trying to escape the pain through self-injury and a change of schools 
before reaching the point of social isolation and anomie. Parts of 
what Todd described, particularly her encounters with her classmates, 
can fit into the rubric of bullying, but to describe her situation as 
bullying obscures the significant criminal harassment that was at the 
crux of her pain. When both teasing and horrific acts of aggression 
become "bullying," it becomes difficult for the public to fully under- 
stand the significance of any particular bullying claim. 

Networked technologies complicate how people understand bully- 
ing. Some people believe that cyberbullying is a whole new phenom- 
enon. Others argue that technology simply offers a new site for 
bullying, just as the phone did before the internet. Often, what's at 
stake has to do with disagreements over how to make sense of the role 
of social media in amplifying the visibility of bullying. There is little 

132 bullying 

doubt that networked technologies can increase the potential audi- 
ence size of witnesses, but it's not clear that the contours of bullying — 
or the impact it has on those involved — radically change. 

The persistence and visibility of bullying in networked publics 
adds a new dimension to how bullying is constructed and under- 
stood. On one hand, cruel interactions between teens leave traces that 
enable others to see what's happening. When this results in enabling 
others to amplify the attacks, heightened visibility can significantly 
increase the emotional duress of a bullying incident. This prompts 
people to assume that technology must inherently make bullying 
more hurtful and damaging, even though teens consistently report 
that they experience greater stress when they are bullied at school. 6 
When cases reach the level of harassment that Amanda Todd received, 
it's clear that technology enabled people to engage in more sustained 
harm. Yet most people who experience bullying do not face the level 
of distributed and continuous cruelty that Todd encountered. Gener- 
alizing from cases like Todd's creates distorted pictures of bullying. 

The visibility and persistence of networked publics may enable 
larger audiences to witness acts of bullying. These same affordances 
create novel opportunities for people to intervene. When children 
come home with black eyes, their parents know that they got into a 
fight. When children come home sullen, there are countless explana- 
tions for their mood. Parents have little insight into the dynamics 
that take place at school unless their child or the school offers them. 
Teens may never share many interpersonal reactions with their par- 
ents or teachers, even when they are exceptionally uplifting or hurt- 
ful. Through social media, everyday interactions leave traces. 

Tumblr is flush with animated GIFs depicting teens' interests and 
tastes. On Instagram, teens share photographs of everything, includ- 
ing food eaten and friendships cemented. And Facebook is replete 
with interpersonal interactions from the mundane to the startling. All 
of this data can create new opportunities for parents and concerned 
onlookers to start conversations with teens about what's happening in 
their lives. At the same time, it's essential that concerned outsiders do 

bullying 133 

not take what they see on social media and make assessments without 
trying to understand the context. 

When parents believe that surveillance is the best way to ensure 
that their children are safe, they often follow their children online or 
simply look over their shoulders to see what they share. As discussed 
in the chapter on privacy, teens often respond to parental surveillance 
by trying to encode their content and obfuscate the meaning. 
Through surveillance, parents often witness various forms of mean- 
ness and cruelty, but may not be able to differentiate between a snide 
comment posted online as a joke and an intentionally cruel jab. 
Rather than using the visibility and persistence of online traces to 
understand their children better, many adults use online traces to 
jump to conclusions. More often than not, when they see online cru- 
elty, they see others victimizing their children while failing to see 
how their children may be engaging with or hurting others. Rather 
than serving as a valuable tool for creating conversations between 
children and their parents, visibility often further complicates how 
parents and other adults understand bullying. 

Who's at Fault? 

When Taylor first moved to her new school in Boston at age four- 
teen, she felt like an outsider. Her hairstyle and clothes were typical 
for her old school on the west coast, but her new classmates saw her 
as an artsy, white "emo" girl. Awkward and shy, she found making 
friends daunting. The exception was Chris, whom she quickly 
befriended. He was also pegged as an artistic outsider by their peers. 
Through Chris, Taylor met Cory, Chris's neighbor and oldest friend. 
The three started hanging out and quickly became inseparable. 
Three years later, Taylor and Cory's friendship evolved into some- 
thing more, and they started dating. Chris became quite jealous, and 
although Cory assumed that Chris was jealous of him for dating 
Taylor, Taylor knew something that Cory did not: Chris was gay, 
more interested in Cory than Taylor, and having a really difficult 
time coming out. 

134 bullying 

At first, their relationship was awkward. Chris began fighting with his 
parents and lashing out at Cory and Taylor. He started spreading rumors 
about Taylor at school and online, encouraging people not to talk to her. 
Though Taylor was hurt, she didn't respond and simply kept her dis- 
tance. Angered by her silence, Chris retaliated by vandalizing her locker, 
destroying her schoolbooks, and spray painting "slut" on her locker. 

Like many schools, Taylor's school had a "zero tolerance" for bully- 
ing policy. By destroying school property, Chris was immediately in 
trouble, and the school swung into action to punish him under their 
zero tolerance protocols. From the school's perspective, Chris was 
bullying Taylor, even though Taylor didn't see it that way. She knew 
that Chris was struggling with his sexuality and was angry with her 
for what he perceived as her stealing Cory from him. She knew that 
Chris was afraid to tell his religious parents that he was gay and was 
engaging in self-destructive, aggressive behavior. Although his ongo- 
ing cruelty was making her miserable, she was distraught about 
Chris. She wanted to help him but also wanted to respect his request 
for confidentiality. She wanted him to stop, but she didn't want his 
parents or the school to punish him because she knew that this 
wouldn't help the situation. Most of all, Taylor was afraid that if 
everyone turned against Chris, he would do something rash like hurt 
himself. Taylor decided not to out Chris and the school punished 
him, prompting his parents to get involved. Chris continued lashing 
out at Taylor. The more the school did, the more the situation esca- 
lated. Taylor found relief only when the school year ended. 

Bullying has serious consequences, both for the recipient and for the 
bully. 7 Bullies are not evil people who decide to torment for fun; those 
are sociopaths. Most bullies react aggressively because they're strug- 
gling with serious issues of their own. Like Chris, many teens lash out 
when they are trying to negotiate serious identity or mental health 
issues. Others are reacting to abuse at home. It's easy to empathize 
with those who are on the receiving end of meanness and cruelty. It's 
much harder — and yet perhaps more important — to offer empathy to 
those who are doing the attacking. 

bullying 135 

Approaching bullying from a punishment-oriented perspective, as 
many schools do — and are increasingly legally required to do — 
rarely helps with bullying situations. 8 Often, as was the case for Tay- 
lor, school and parental involvement worsens the situation because 
the adults involved do not understand the details. If young people 
believe that adults will overreact or won't understand the complexi- 
ties of the interpersonal dynamics, they aren't particularly interested 
in conveying the challenges they're facing. In this situation, Taylor 
was able to turn to her mother and explain the full situation; the sup- 
port she received at home allowed her to manage unproductive school 
decisions. Many teens are not that lucky. 

The language of bullying often presumes that there's a perpetrator 
and a victim. By focusing on blaming the perpetrator and protecting 
the victim, well-intended adults often fail to recognize the complex- 
ity of most conflicts. When punishment is the focus, there's often 
little incentive for understanding how punitive measures enable the 
cycle of violence to continue. Not only are zero tolerance approaches 
often unjust and ineffective; they also create additional harm that 
increases unhealthy interpersonal interactions. In other words, these 
policies help create the bullies that they're intended to stop. 

When adults reframe every interpersonal conflict in terms of bul- 
lying or focus on determining who's at fault and punishing that per- 
son, they also lose a valuable opportunity to help teens navigate the 
complicated interpersonal dynamics and social challenges that they 
face. Bullying is an important issue to address, but figuring out how 
to address the wide swath of meanness and cruelty that adults iden- 
tify as bullying requires looking at the language teens use and the 
cultural norms that surround them. 

Teenage Drama 

While many adults use bullying to mean every form of youth 
meanness and cruelty, teenagers use the term more conservatively. 
Many are quick to say that bullying is not a significant issue in their 
peer group, and when they give concrete examples of bullying, they 

136 bullying 

describe incidents in which someone is repeatedly tormented for 
being different. This does not mean that they are oblivious to other 
forms of meanness and cruelty; they just talk about these issues using 
different language. In Atlanta, I interviewed two white fifteen-year- 
olds — Chloe and Vicki — about some of the dynamics they saw in 
their peer group. I asked if bullying was a problem at their school, 
and Chloe told me that it was not a major issue because she went to 
a Christian school. When I followed up to ask about rumors that the 
girls were referencing, Chloe and Vicki launched into a discussion 
about different types of gossip that they saw spread online and at 
school. They saw gossip and rumors as quite distinct from bullying, 
in part because when gossip and rumors spread, those who were the 
initial targets immediately responded by launching their own attacks. 
In other words, because Chloe and Vicki do not see a power differen- 
tial between those engaged in interpersonal conflict, they do not use 
the term bullying. 

Repeatedly, my collaborator Alice and I interviewed teenagers who 
told us that bullying was not nearly as significant an issue as adults 
thought. These teens confidently told us that bullying was "so mid- 
dle school" and that teenagers "grow out of it." They positioned bul- 
lying as "immature," and as Caleb, a black seventeen-year-old from 
North Carolina, told Alice, "Once you get to high school is when the 
bullying really just like stops." After telling us that bullying doesn't 
happen in their school, teens would continue to describe a host of 
different practices that might easily be identified as bullying by adults 
using different language — gossip and rumors, pranking and punk- 
ing, and, above all, drama. 

In trying to understand teens' perspective on conflict, Alice and I 
became increasingly interested in the pervasive use of the term drama. 
Teens regularly used that word to describe various forms of interper- 
sonal conflict that ranged from insignificant joking around to serious 
jealousy-driven relational aggression. Whereas adults might have 
labeled many of these practices as bullying, teens saw them as drama. 
Drawing on what we learned from interviewing teens, Alice and I 

bullying 137 

defined drama as "performative, interpersonal conflict that takes 
place in front of an active, engaged audience, often on social media." 9 

Drama is not simply a substitute for bullying. Unlike bullying, 
which presumes a victim and a perpetrator, referring to conflict as 
drama allows teens to distance themselves from any emotional costs 
associated with what is happening. Drama does not automatically 
position anyone as either a target or an abuser. Those involved in 
drama do not have to see themselves as aggressive or weak but simply 
as part of a broader — and, often, normative — social process. Even 
when someone is central to the drama, they have an opportunity to 
respond, which allows them to feel a sense of power, even when 
they're hurting. As Carmen, a seventeen-year-old Latina from Bos- 
ton, told us: "Drama is more there's two sides fighting back. I guess 
the second you fight back, it's — you're not allowed to call it bullying 
because you're defending yourself, I guess." This reinforces Olweus's 
notion that bullying is fundamentally about a difference in power 
and creates a word to talk about conflict in which power is not cen- 
tral. It also explains why Ashley saw the conflict around her as being 
about drama rather than bullying. 

Most teenagers we met were able to articulate examples of drama 
that they experienced or witnessed. Many also saw social media as a 
key factor in the escalation of drama. For some, inciting drama was a 
source of entertainment and a practice to relieve boredom. For exam- 
ple, when I asked Samantha, a white seventeen-year-old from Seattle, 
about gossip, she told me that she liked to "start drama" online when 
she's bored; she found the reactions people have to gossip to be a relief 
from the tedium of homework. For others, drama is a way of testing 
out friendships and understanding the dynamics of popularity and 
status. Drama can be a way of achieving attention, working out sex- 
ual interests, and redirecting anger or frustration. Although we heard 
about drama from boys and girls, the term is typically employed in a 
gendered fashion, with teens describing the ways in which drama is a 
distinctly female practice. A white eighteen-year-old from Iowa 
named Wolf shared the following story with me: 

138 bullying 

My sister and her friends, when they get angry at each other, 
they'll try to post the most provocative pictures they can, the 
ones that will make their friends the most angry And that's 
what they do back and forth, and when it gets bad, they'll com- 
ment to each other. . . . And by the end of the day, they're ready 
to tear each other to bits. 

Wolf sees the use of social media to escalate conflict as girls' work. 

Although the boys we interviewed rarely described their own prac- 
tices through the language of drama, they referred to similar acts as 
either punking or pranking. 

In North Carolina, Alice and I met Trevor and Matthew, white 
seventeen-year-old seniors and best friends. They loved to initiate 
pranks that would cause embarrassment; they saw creating such inci- 
dents to be a source of entertainment, even when someone got hurt 
in the process. When possible, they wanted their pranks to take place 
online so that their peers could all bear witness. One day, Matthew 
left his computer unattended without logging off of Facebook. 
Trevor, recognizing the opportunity, went to Matthew's Facebook 
account and posted a status update without Matthew's knowledge. 
His goal was to make others laugh by making Matthew look dumb. 

Later that day, still having not seen or heard about what Trevor 
had written on his profile, Matthew went to his after-school job as a 
parking attendant. There, a concerned coworker approached him to 
ask about his school suspension. Matthew was initially confused but 
quickly realized that his colleague had read something on Facebook. 
He logged in to find that his last status update stated that he had 
received an in-school suspension for knocking a girl's books off her 
desk with his erection. The post also included a complaint, presum- 
ably by him, that it wasn't his fault that he couldn't control himself 
and that teachers should feel sympathy for him. 10 His classmates had 
flooded this update with their own comments, some taking the post 
literally and others recognizing it as a joke. Matthew was embar- 
rassed by Trevor's prank, but he didn't let it get to him. Instead, he 

bullying 139 

started plotting ways to get Trevor back even as his classmates con- 
tinued to tease him for the post. 

Trevor and Matthew may have relished the drama that ensued 
around their efforts to punk each other, but not all punking and 
pranking is well intentioned. Ana-Garcia, a fifteen-year-old of mixed 
Indian and Guatemalan heritage living in Los Angeles, recounted 
stories of her brother impersonating her on various social media. 
Although her brother often told her he did it because it was funny to 
upset her, she believed that his actions were spiteful because their 
parents treated her better. She was frustrated that her friends often 
didn't realize that it was her brother pretending to be her. On more 
than one occasion, her brother's posts caused a rift between her and 
her friends. Although Ana-Garcia was angry with her brother for 
wreaking havoc on her friendships, she also shrugged it off to me as 
being little brother behavior. 

What makes an act cruel is not only about the act itself but how it 
is intended, perceived, and experienced. In communities that value 
having a thick skin, some teens feel the need to accept cruelty from 
friends, even when it hurts. Teens may not accept the mantle of bul- 
lying because they don't want to position themselves as victims, but 
that does not mean that they don't feel attacked. They smile and 
laugh off the pain in public because they feel this is what their com- 
munity expects. They try to ignore any negative emotional response 
to drama because they don't want their peers to see them as weak. 

Alongside the interpersonal conflict that occurs, teens grapple with 
how others perceive them. Technology can amplify existing dramas, 
but it can also create new mechanisms for meanness and cruelty to 
unfold. In 2010, Formspring, a question-and-answer service designed 
for professionals, became popular among American high school stu- 
dents. Quickly, the site became controversial as incidents of bullying 
unfolded in the questions and answers. Those with a Facebook 
account could post a profile on Formspring, which was automatically 
linked to Facebook. Then anyone could write questions anonymously. 
The questions and answers both appeared on a person's profile. While 

140 bullying 

some of the questions asked were harmless ("What's your favorite 
color?"), others were excruciatingly mean ("Why are you such a 
Peking slut?"). This outraged parents, educators, and journalists 
alike. Many argued that Formspring should be banned because it was 
a source of anonymous cruelty. 

As news media debated the costs of anonymity on the site, I found 
myself puzzled by the interpretation of what was happening on Form- 
spring. What most people who didn't use the site failed to realize was 
that questions never appeared on Formspring unless the recipient 
chose to answer them. Dumbfounded as to why teens would choose 
to respond to and post cruel questions, I contacted the company to 
help me understand what was happening. After investigating some of 
the most insidious cases, Formspring representatives noticed a pat- 
tern. Many of the "anonymous" questions were written by users at the 
same IP address as the account that responded to them. Furthermore, 
the questions were answered immediately after they were posted. 
Although there was a slim possibility that these hurtful messages 
could have come from siblings in the same house, some teens appeared 
to be anonymously asking cruel questions to themselves and then 
responding to them. In other words, some teens were engaging in acts 
of digital self-harm to attract attention, support, and validation. 

To my surprise, digital self-harm turned out to happen more than 
I realized. Psychologist Elizabeth Englander found that 9 percent of 
youth she surveyed reported using the internet to bully themselves." 
About a third of them felt that they achieved what they wanted and 
felt better as a result. This practice, while neither universal nor even 
the majority, certainly complicates the boundaries between seeking 
attention and engaging in bullying. 

Acts of meanness and cruelty, pranking and punking, gossip and 
bullying, and digital self-harm are all wrapped up in other personal, 
interpersonal, and social dynamics. Teens are struggling with their 
own sense of self, how they relate to others, and what it means to fit 
into the broader world. They face pressures to conform and they strug- 
gle to understand what's acceptable and normative while listening to 


the messages that surround them. For better or worse, much of what 
they're trying to do is figure out where they stand. 

Seeking Social Status 

In Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids, sociologist Murray Milner Jr. ana- 
lyzes American teen social status systems, documenting practices 
ranging from clique formation to conspicuous consumption, a prac- 
tice of purchasing clothing and other material objects to show off. In 
addressing the question, "Why do they behave like that?" Milner 
explains that even though teens have more autonomy than children, 
they lack agency in many aspects of their lives. They are regularly 
reminded of their limited economic or political power when pre- 
sented with culturally pervasive messages that distinguish adults 
from children, including age-based restrictions on a range of prac- 
tices, including consuming alcohol, viewing movies, attending clubs, 
driving, voting, and simply hanging out at night. As Milner explains, 
"In one realm, however, their power is supreme; they control their 
evaluations of one another. That is, the kind of power they do have is 
status power: the power to create their own status systems based on 
their own criteria." 11 

Because of how American society constructs and restricts child- 
hood, youth learn to value social information as part of developing a 
sense for social relations. Social dramas that unfold as youth begin 
brokering gossip and marking social status shape tween and teen 
years. In school, gossip and rumors operate as a type of social cur- 
rency that allows the development and maintenance of social catego- 
ries and cliques. 13 Teens use gossip to separate themselves from others, 
often in an effort to be seen as popular by dissing someone else. 

In Michigan, I met Summer, a quiet, white fifteen-year-old girl, 
who told me how her best friend became her worst enemy. Catie and 
Summer were close throughout elementary school, but as middle 
school approached, a rift emerged. Catie started sharing intimate sto- 
ries that Summer had told her, seeding rumors that evolved as they 
spread. Summer was devastated and didn't know how to respond. 

142 bullying 

She tried ignoring what was happening, but she couldn't. The foun- 
dations of the rumors were true but had been private. Summer had 
trusted Catie not to share these stories. The situation escalated as 
new rumors began and spread throughout her school. Summer didn't 
know exactly how the rumors spread, but she suspected by every 
communication channel available to her cohort — including word of 
mouth, telephone, and instant messenger. She tried to fight back, but 
that only made things worse. Summer found herself alone among her 
peers, without anyone to support her. Eventually, the pain consumed 
her, and with the support of her parents, she chose to switch schools. 
This was a good move for Summer, as she was much happier and 
more comfortable at her new school. 

Summer and Catie were once close friends. They had shared every- 
thing. And Summer said she trusted Catie. But as they grew older, 
Catie began developing friendships with the popular kids in their 
school. Looking back, the fifteen-year-old version of Summer believes 
that Catie rejected her eleven-year- old self because she wasn't popular 
enough. Although it saddened her, Summer believed that Catie's 
popularity did indeed rise by attacking Summer. 

Unfortunately, it's quite common for former friends to turn on 
each other in a quest for popularity and status, out of spite or jeal- 
ousy, or in response to perceived wrongs. Some embark on psycho- 
logical warfare, tormenting those they once adored. Others simply 
create a wall of silence, suddenly refusing to engage with former 
friends in the hopes that they can walk away from an aspect of them- 
selves that they believe no longer serves them. Sometimes, these splits 
are quiet and subtle, but often, they are highly visible and fueled by 
rumors and drama. 

Social media services can play a role in teens' struggles for popular- 
ity and status because they enable the easy spread of information and 
allow teens to keep up with ever-changing school dynamics. These 
technologies also allow people to maintain social ties more easily, pro- 
viding infrastructure for the dissemination of social information. 
Tools like Facebook make it easier for teens to keep up with their 

bullying 143 

classmates' birthdays, breakups and makeups, and adventures to fol- 
low social protocols, engage one another in conversation, and provide 
support. At the same time, what is shared and easily accessible is not 
always beneficial. Because social media makes it easy to share infor- 
mation broadly, people can also easily spread hurtful gossip in an 
effort to assert status, get attention, or relieve boredom. These dynam- 
ics are often intertwined. 

Cachi, a Puerto Rican eighteen-year-old living in Iowa, told me 
that the flow of information on Facebook's "news feed" is useful 
because it enables her to "[keep] track of who's talking to who." 
Through Facebook, she can follow the ebbs and flows of friendships 
and romantic relationships. Cachi believes that being informed about 
interpersonal interactions is important because it allows her to avoid 
embarrassing herself in front of others. She wants to know the status 
of people's relationships with their significant others so that she can 
ask about them appropriately without making a faux pas. She 
explained that being out of the loop can be awkward. Cachi likes the 
way Facebook allows her to stay on top of what is happening among 
her peers. She relishes the gossip because it gives her the ability to step 
in at the right time and act, either to maintain her social standing or 
to negotiate others' popularity. She is fully aware that social media 
makes it easier to spin small issues out of proportion to create conflict, 
but she still wants to be attuned to the drama as it is happening. The 
same tools that are used to spread the conflict allow her to track it. 

Although the impact of gossip can be deeply problematic and 
many might view spreading gossip with disdain, not all gossip is 
hurtful. In fact, as the anthropologist Robin Dunbar has shown, gos- 
sip plays a central role in helping humans build connections. 14 Like 
Cachi, many people gossip in order to position themselves in a social 
group and to maintain social ties. People reveal aspects of themselves 
to others as a bonding ritual, building trust through reciprocity. 
They dissect their lives and the lives of others. They maintain con- 
nections by keeping each other up-to-date about social happenings 
and relationships. 

144 bullying 

Though gossip can be put to good uses, much of the gossip 
that teens exchange is neither innocent nor benign. What's shared 
may be untrue, private, or circulated for malicious reasons — such 
as to hurt a rival, build one friendship at the expense of another, 
or destroy someone's reputation. The same mechanisms that help 
people bond also create social fault lines. Having access to 
information about someone and the ability to use it as a weapon 
is a form of power in social situations. Gossip, good and bad, helps 
people broker social status. The higher status an individual is, the 
more valuable it is to know the intimate details of that person's life. 
And when they use gossip to reinforce power structures, this can 
often take on the form of bullying. Individuals are especially advan- 
taged if they know intimate information about someone without 
having to share anything in return. This motivates people to seek 
information about others and to exchange information that they 
have: the practice of gossip in the most widely used and least positive 
sense of the word. 

Gossip can seem to take on a life of its own through social media. 
When people choose to share or spread content about others, they 
can use social media to easily transmit the message to a wide and 
connected audience. A rumor shared on Facebook has the potential 
to spread farther and faster and persist longer than any school rumor 
could have in the past. This does not mean that Facebook creates 
gossip. Rather, someone seeking to spread a message can easily lever- 
age the affordances of networked publics to do so. 

People spread the content they find fascinating, fueling the atten- 
tion that it receives. Although people can and do share helpful or 
entertaining content, what they share widely is often that which is 
most embarrassing or humiliating, grotesque or sexual, mean-spirited 
or shocking. Because sharing is a form of currency and experiencing a 
cultural artifact together enables bonding, teens look for content that 
they think those around them will find interesting. Unfortunately, 
some of the best-known videos online — so-called viral videos — stem 
from teens choosing to spread content that shame their peers. 

bullying 145 

The "Star Wars Kid" video is a classic example of a widely viewed 
video that was shared online to embarrass a teen. In 2002, a fourteen- 
year-old heavyset boy created a home video of himself swinging a golf 
ball retriever as though it was a light saber from Star Wars. A year 
later, a classmate of his found this home video, digitized it, and put it 
up online. Others edited the video, setting the action to music and 
dubbing in sound effects, graphics, and other special effects. The 
resultant "Star Wars Kid" video spread rapidly and received extensive 
media attention. 15 It became the source of new memes and mocking 
video spin-offs. Even comedians like Weird Al Yankovic and Stephen 
Colbert produced their own renditions. Although people gained 
attention for spreading the video or creating their own versions, the 
cost of this mass attention was devastating to the teenager in the 
video. His family sued his classmates for emotional duress because of 
the ongoing harassment he faced. 

The "Star Wars Kid" video exemplifies how mass public shaming 
is a byproduct of widespread internet attention and networked distri- 
bution. Teenagers commonly face a lesser version of this when they 
receive unexpected and unwanted attention, when they become the 
target of a rumor, or when others share their content beyond its 
intended audience. Social media complicates the dynamics of social 
sharing and gossip because it provides a platform for information to 
spread far and wide, and people are often motivated to spread embar- 
rassing content because others find it interesting. Spreadable media 
can be used to drum up productive attention, but it can also be used 
to shame. 16 

People choose what to spread online, but the technologies that they 
use to do so are created to increase the visibility of content that will 
attract the most attention. Many social media tools are designed to 
encourage people to consume streams or feeds of updates. A steady 
flow of photographs, updates, and comments from friends on Twit- 
ter, Instagram, Tumblr, and other services flood teens' screens. Keep- 
ing up with everything can be difficult and overwhelming. Facebook 
tries to address this issue by limiting what users see when they view 

146 bullying 

their feed so that the most algorithmically determined interesting 
content appears at the top. The algorithms filter most of what people 
say such that viewers only see a fraction of the updates from their 
contacts. What bubbles up is inevitably that which has already 
received tremendous attention through views, comments, and likes. 
To maximize attention, Facebook designs algorithms to perfect the 
gossip machine. 

Social media is situated within an attention economy in which 
technologies are built to capture and sustain the interest of users. 
Many corporate monetization plans are driven by advertising, which 
measures success through pageviews and other types of engagement 
like user-generated content. Technical features that show "most 
watched" or "trending" content amplify what is already gaining trac- 
tion. Marketers try to find ways to manipulate technology to capture 
others' attention, but they are not alone. Teens also try to use the 
same technologies to garner attention from their peers by sharing 
things that may interest them, whether that content is enlightening 
or hurtful. In this ecosystem, capturing attention is important for 
financial and personal gain. 

The dynamics of drama and attention don't unfold because of 
social media, even if teens can use technology for these purposes. 
They are also not innate properties of being a teenager. Teenagers 
learn to engage in acts of drama just as they learn different tactics for 
acquiring attention from others. One of the ways that they develop 
these sensibilities is through celebrity culture and the dramas between 
public figures that they watch unfold as part of contemporary enter- 

The Celebritization of Everyday Life 

As a currency, attention has tremendous social and cultural value. 
Teens learn the value of attention, the cost of gossip, and the power 
of drama by observing what takes place around them. Reality TV, 
tabloid magazines, and celebrity news all provide a media-driven 
template for understanding how attention operates and helps fuel 

bullying 147 

drama for entertainment. The advertising culture that teens witness 
reveals a market- driven valuation of attention. In school, teens 
observe how students broker attention with respect to classmates and 
teachers and start drama to negotiate power and status. Meanwhile, 
at home, teens often hear their parents gossip about work, neighbors, 
and family. While society derides attention, gossip, and drama, teens 
also receive clear cultural signals that these behaviors are normal. 
Teens may mock peers for being "attention whores," but they also 
recognize that attention can be — and is often seen as — valuable. 
They may lament drama in their schools while relishing TV shows 
that depict so-called reality drama. Teens see gossip, drama, and 
attention games all around them, and not surprisingly, they mirror 
what they see. 

The norms of celebrity culture, including the politics of attention 
and drama, seep into everyday life. 17 Teens watch nobodies become 
famous, and they bear witness to everyday dramas enacted by "real- 
ity" stars, online attention seekers, and traditional celebrities alike. 
They may try to seek the attention of stars that they appreciate, or 
mock those who are caught up in fandom, but they're broadly aware 
of how attention circulates around famous individuals and how atten- 
tion affects celebrities' status. The same practices that they watch 
celebrities engage in — and themselves participate in as fans — also 
influence their understanding of how to navigate attention and status. 

Social media also allows people to enact celebrity practices. 18 Teens 
can and do use social media to drum up attention for themselves and 
shower attention on others. Attention through social media can be 
both delightful and devastating. Sometimes, it's used to celebrate 
people's accomplishments. Other times, it's used to challenge peo- 
ple's stature. More than anything, how other teens and celebrities use 
technologies to negotiate attention sets the stage for what teens 
understand as normal. 

What constitutes good attention versus bad attention often gets 
blurry, just as the line between drama as entertainment and drama as 
hurtful activity can be hard to identify. The same aspects of technology 

148 bullying 

that increase the visibility of drama are those that help increase atten- 
tion more generally. One way of seeing the dynamics that emerge is 
through the lens of teen celebrity culture, as some teens become celebri- 
ties in their own right. Teen celebrity culture is created by and is a 
byproduct of attention seeking and visibility that can be both healthy 
and unhealthy. 

Media makers have long capitalized on teens' passion for celebrities 
by producing boy bands and teen starlets, from the 1950s Mouseke- 
teers to the 1990s Backstreet Boys. In doing so, they help sell celebrity 
culture to the public. Social media has changed various aspects of 
this dynamic. Most notably, it provides a pathway for teenagers to 
become famous, as in the case of Canadian teen idol Justin Bieber, 
who was first identified through YouTube. This creates the illusion 
that social media makes fame more readily accessible. Social media 
also allows famous teens to communicate directly with their fans, as 
Disney-produced starlets Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato do. Being 
able to interact directly with stars through social media appears to 
eliminate the distance between fans and celebrities. 19 

Long before the internet, people produced and consumed gossip 
about high-status public people, including members of the aristoc- 
racy, celebrities, and politicians. Gossip columns and tabloids have 
large audiences because people want access to the intimate lives of the 
rich and famous. The same is true with online fan pages and celebrity 
Twitter accounts. Some people like to live vicariously through the 
comings and goings of the successful; others prefer to vent their jeal- 
ousy. Teens, oblivious to the pressure that comes with fame, have 
long looked to celebrities with awe, imagining their lives to be full of 
freedom and flexibility and absent of homework or chores. But celeb- 
rity can often be stifling. 

When people become famous, they are often objectified, discussed, 
and ridiculed with little consideration for who they are as people. 
Fans and critics feel as though they have the right to comment on 
everything celebrities do with little regard to the costs that those in 
the crosshairs of attention will bear. The cost that celebrities pay for 

bullying 149 

the supposed benefits of being rich and famous is ongoing scrutiny 
and a lack of privacy. Most people do not understand or appreciate 
the pressure that results from fame, even though public meltdowns — 
such as the night that Britney Spears shaved her head in front of 
numerous photographers — are highly publicized. The public's obses- 
sion with obtaining information about the famous puts serious pres- 
sure on those people's lives, as the paparazzi's role in Princess Diana's 
death so brutally reminds us. 20 Few people have sympathy for the 
kinds of stress that gossip places on public figures who have high 
status and wealth. At a distance, famous people seem invulnerable. 

Social media alters the spectacle around teen stars' activities, but it 
doesn't lessen the pressure. Fans relish watching high-profile drama — 
such as fights between Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato playing out 
over Twitter or Justin Bieber appearing to have a meltdown on Insta- 
gram. They take sides, offer support, and swear loyalty to stars they 
love, but they have little appreciation for how their attention and 
infatuation creates pressure and fuels the drama in the first place. 

As teens enter into the spotlight, they become objectified in ways 
that parallel what celebrities face. This is a process that media scholar 
Terri Senft calls "microcelebrity." 21 Teens who are famous among 
niche crowds get to face both the costs and the benefits of being on 
the receiving end of tremendous attention, but without the structural 
support that celebrities have — including the handlers, managers, and 
financial resources to cope with the onslaught of attention. This can 
create a heady situation, with teens simultaneously relishing that 
positive feedback and being deeply affected by the cruelty and 
pressure that often comes with it. 

In 2011, thirteen-year-old California-based Rebecca Black wanted 
to make a music video. Her mother paid a vanity music label and 
production company to work with her daughter and her daughter's 
friends to record a highly Auto-Tuned song called "Friday." The asso- 
ciated video appeared on YouTube and quickly generated attention, 
mostly by people who harshly criticized what they saw as poor song- 
writing and Black's inability to sing. On Twitter, a comedian described 

150 bullying 

the song as the "worst video ever made." 12 As word of the video spread, 
Black became a target of incessant meanness and cruelty by strangers, 
classmates, and the media. She was attacked online and at school. 23 
But her meteoric rise to global fame also meant that she gained tre- 
mendous positive attention, too. In recognition of the phenomenon, 
the popular musical TV show Glee decided to do a rendition of her 
song, and the pop celebrity Katy Perry paid homage to Black in "Last 
Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" by having Black perform alongside Perry in 
the music video. Black loved the recognition and validation, but she 
wasn't prepared for the cruelty that came with it. The dynamic that 
Black faced is a product of celebrity. 

When teens achieve overwhelming attention and visibility online, 
positive feedback and negative attacks often go hand in hand. Some- 
times, as with the case of Rebecca Black, the positive attention 
appears to outweigh the negative feedback. In other situations, like 
the attention received by "Star Wars Kid," the very act of people see- 
ing and sharing a video feels hurtful. As teens encounter and partici- 
pate in celebrity culture, either to seek attention themselves or to 
engage with people who are famous, they regularly experience mean- 
ness and cruelty. The scale of negativity that these young celebrities 
and microcelebrities receive is unprecedented, but so is the level of 
positive attention that they receive. Far from being justifiable, the 
meanness and cruelty that these teens receive as a byproduct of 
becoming famous highlights how society seeks to temper individual 
success and visibility by challenging people's status and stature. For 
better or worse, celebrity culture has normalized drama as a de facto 
aspect of everyday public life. 

Addressing a Culture of Meanness and Cruelty 

As teens engage with networked publics, they must negotiate a 
social ecosystem in which their peers are not only hanging out but 
also jockeying for social status. In these settings, interpersonal con- 
flicts emerge and teens participate in battles over reputation, status, 
and popularity. Attention becomes a commodity, and at times, teens 

bullying 151 

participate in drama or pranks that can be intentionally or accidently 
hurtful to others. Not all drama or gossip is problematic, but some of 
what teens experience is quite painful. 

While we cannot protect youth from all forms of meanness 
and cruelty or stop teens from getting hurt when they negotiate 
social relations, we can certainly make a concerted effort to empower 
youth, to strengthen their resilience, and to help recognize when they 
are hurting. 14 When teens have the strength to cope with stressful 
situations, they are less likely to either try to escalate the situation or 
be emotionally shaken by a negative encounter. When teens under- 
stand how their actions affect others — including those who appear 
invulnerable — they are more attentive to the consequences of what 
they say and do. Many programs exist to help youth develop resil- 
ience and empathy, but they are often overlooked once conflict is 
under way. 2S 

Although new forms of drama find a home through social media, 
teens' behaviors have not significantly changed. Social media has not 
radically altered the dynamics of bullying, but it has made these 
dynamics more visible to more people. We must use this visibility, 
not to justify increased punishment, but to help youth who are actu- 
ally crying out for attention. Blaming technology or assuming that 
conflict will disappear if technology usage is minimized is naive. 
Recognizing where teens are at and why they engage in particular 
acts of meanness and cruelty is important to creating interventions 
that work. 

152 bullying 

6 inequality 

can social media resolve 
social divisions? 

In a school classroom in Los Angeles, Keke sat down, crossed her 
arms defensively, and looked at me with suspicion. After an hour of 
short, emotionless responses to my questions about her daily life and 
online activities, I hit a nerve when I asked the black sixteen-year-old 
to explain how race operated in her community. I saw her fill with 
rage as she described how gang culture shaped her life. "We can't 
have a party without somebody being a Blood or somebody being a 
Crip and then they get into it and then there's shooting. Then 
we can't go to my friend's house because it's on the wrong side of 
[the street]. You know what I'm saying? It's the Mexican side." Los 
Angeles gang culture forces her to think about where she goes, who 
she spends time with, and what she wears. 

We can't go places because of gangs. . . . We can't go to the mall, 
can't be a whole bunch of black people together. ... I hate not 
being able to go places. I hate having to be careful what color 
shoes I'm wearing or what color is in my pants or what color's in 
my hair. ... I just hate that. It's just not right. 

When each color represents a different gang, the choice to wear red 
or blue goes beyond taste and fashion. 

Although Keke understood the dynamics of gang culture in her 
community and was respected by the gang to which members of her 


family belonged, she despised the gangs' power. She hated the vio- 
lence. And she had good reason to be angry. Only a few weeks before 
we met, Keke's brother had been shot and killed after crossing into 
the turf of a Latino gang. Keke was still in mourning. 

Though almost sixty years had passed since the US Supreme Court 
ruled that segregation of public high schools is unconstitutional, 
most American high schools that I encountered organized themselves 
around race and class through a variety of social, cultural, economic, 
and political forces. The borders of school districts often produce 
segregated schools as a byproduct of de facto neighborhood segrega- 
tion. Students find themselves in particular classrooms — or on aca- 
demic tracks — based on test scores, and these results often correlate 
with socioeconomic status. Friend groups are often racially and eco- 
nomically homogenous, which translates into segregated lunchrooms 
and segregated online communities. 

The most explicit manifestation of racial segregation was visible to 
me in schools like Keke's, where gangs play a central role in shaping 
social life. Her experiences with race and turf are common in her com- 
munity. The resulting dynamics organize her neighborhood and infil- 
trate her school. When I first visited Keke's school, I was initially 
delighted by how diverse and integrated the school appeared to be. The 
majority of students were immigrants, and there was no dominant race 
or nationality. More than other schools I visited, classrooms looked like 
they were from a Benetton ad or a United Nations gathering, with 
students from numerous racial backgrounds sitting side by side. Yet 
during lunch or between classes, the school's diversity dissolved as 
peers clustered along racial and ethnic lines. As Keke explained, 

This school is so segregated. It's crazy. We got Disneyland full of 
all the white people. . . . The hallways is full of the Indians, and 
the people of Middle Eastern descent. . . . The Latinos, they all 
lined up on this side. The blacks is by the cafeteria and the quad. 
Then the outcasts, like the uncool Latinos or uncool Indians. 
The uncool whites, they scattered. 

154 inequality 

Every teen I spoke with at Keke's school used similar labels to 
describe the different shared spaces where teens cluster. "Disneyland" 
was the section in the courtyard where white students gathered, while 
"Six Flags" described the part occupied by black students. When I 
tried to understand where these terms came from, one of Keke's class- 
mates — a fifteen-year-old Latina named Lolo — explained, "It's just 
been here for, I think, generations. (Laughs) I'm sure if you're a ninth 
grader, you might not know until somebody tells you. But I did know 
'cause my brother told me." Those same identifiers bled into nearby 
schools and were used when public spaces outside of school were 
identified. No one knew who created these labels, but they did know 
that these were the right terms to use. Each cohort had to learn the 
racial organization of the school, just as they had to learn the racial 
logic of their neighborhoods. They understood that flouting these 
implicit rules by crossing lines could have serious social and physical 

Although Keke's experience of losing a family member to gang 
violence is uncommon, death is not that exceptional in a community 
where gun violence is pervasive. Gang members may know one 
another at school, but the tense civility they maintain in the hallways 
does not carry over to the streets. Teens of different races may con- 
verse politely in the classroom, but that doesn't mean they are friends 
on social media. Although many teens connect to everyone they 
know on sites like Facebook, this doesn't mean that they cross 
unspoken cultural boundaries. Communities where race is fraught 
maintain the same systems of segregation online and off. 

What struck me as I talked with teens about how race and class 
operated in their communities was their acceptance of norms they 
understood to be deeply problematic. In a nearby Los Angeles school, 
Traviesa, a Hispanic fifteen-year-old, explained, "If it comes down to 
it, we have to supposedly stick with our own races. . . . That's just the 
unwritten code of high school nowadays." Traviesa didn't want to 
behave this way, but the idea of fighting expectations was simply too 
exhausting and costly to consider. In losing her brother, Keke knew 


those costs all too well, and they made her deeply angry. "We all 
humans," she said. "Skin shouldn't separate nobody. But that's what 
happens." Although part of Keke wanted to fight back against the 
racial dynamics that had killed her brother, she felt powerless. 

As I watched teens struggle to make sense of the bigotry and rac- 
ism that surrounded them in the mid- to late 2000s, the American 
media started discussing how the election of Barack Obama as the 
president of the United States marked the beginning of a "postracial" 
era. And because social media supposedly played a role in electing the 
first black US president, some in the press argued that technology 
would bring people together, eradicate social divisions in the United 
States, and allow democracy to flourish around the world. 1 This Uto- 
pian discourse did not reflect the very real social divisions that I 
watched emerge and persist in teens' lives. 2 

The Biases in Technology 

Society has often heralded technology as a tool to end social divi- 
sions. In 1858, when the Atlantic Telegraph Company installed the 
first transatlantic cable, many imagined that this new communica- 
tion device would help address incivility. As authors Charles Briggs 
and Augustus Maverick said of the telegraph: "This binds together 
by a vital cord all the nations of the earth. It is impossible that old 
prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instru- 
ment has been created for an exchange of thought between all the 
nations of the earth." 3 New communication media often inspire the 
hope that they can and will be used to bridge cultural divides. This 
hope gets projected onto new technologies in ways that suggest that 
the technology itself does the work of addressing cultural divisions. 

As I describe throughout this book, the mere existence of new 
technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems. In 
fact, their construction typically reinforces existing social divisions. 
This sometimes occurs when designers intentionally build tools in 
prejudicial ways. More often it happens inadvertently when creators 
fail to realize how their biases inform their design decisions or when 

156 inequality 

the broader structural ecosystem in which a designer innovates has 
restrictions that produce bias as a byproduct. 

In 1980, technology studies scholar Langdon Winner published a 
controversial essay entitled, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" In it, he 
points to the case of urban planner Robert Moses as an example of 
how biases appear in design. In the mid-twentieth century, Moses 
was influential in designing roads, bridges, and public housing proj- 
ects in New York City and neighboring counties. In planning park- 
ways on Long Island, Moses designed bridges and overpasses that 
were too low for buses and trucks to pass under. Buses, for example, 
could not use the parkway to get to Jones Beach, a major summer 
destination. Winner argues that these design decisions excluded 
those who relied on public transportation — the poor, blacks, and 
other minorities and disadvantaged citizens — from getting to key 
venues on Long Island. He suggests that Moses incorporated his 
prejudices into the design of major urban infrastructures. 

This parable is contested. Responding to Winner's essay, technol- 
ogy scholar Bernward Joerges argues in "Do Politics Have Artefacts?" 
that Moses's decisions had nothing to do with prejudice but rather 
resulted from existing regulatory restrictions limiting the height of 
bridges and the use of parkways by buses, trucks, and commercial 
vehicles. Joerges suggests that Winner used haphazard information to 
advance his argument. Alternatively, one could read the information 
that Joerges puts forward as reinforcing Winner's broader conceptual 
claim. Perhaps Robert Moses did not intentionally design the road- 
ways to segregate Long Island racially and socioeconomically, but his 
decision to build low overpasses resulted in segregation nonetheless. 
In other words, the combination of regulation and design produced a 
biased outcome regardless of the urban planner's intention. 

Companies often design, implement, and test new technologies in 
limited settings. Only when these products appear in the marketplace 
do people realize that aspects of the technology or its design result in 
biases that disproportionately affect certain users. For example, many 
image-capture technologies have historically had difficulty capturing 


darker-skinned people because they rely on light, which reflects better 
off of lighter objects. As a result, photography and film better capture 
white skin while transforming black skin in unexpected ways. 4 This 
same issue has reemerged in digital technologies like Microsoft's 
Kinect, an interactive gaming platform that relies on face recognition. 
Much to the frustration of many early adopters, the system often fails 
to recognize dark-skinned users. 5 In choosing to use image capture to 
do face recognition, the Kinect engineers built a system that is techni- 
cally — and thus socially — biased in implementation. In other tech- 
nologies, biases may emerge as a byproduct of the testing process. 
Apple's voice recognition software, Siri, has difficulty with some 
accents, including Scottish, Southern US, and Indian. 6 Siri was 
designed to recognize language iteratively. Because the creators tested 
the system primarily in-house, the system was better at recognizing 
those American English accents most commonly represented at Apple. 

The internet was supposed to be different from previous technolo- 
gies. Technology pundits and early adopters believed that the inter- 
net would be a great equalizer — where race and class wouldn't 
matter — because of the lack of visual cues available. 7 But it turns out 
that the techno-utopians were wrong. The same biases that configure 
unmediated aspects of everyday life also shape the mediated experi- 
ences people have on the internet. Introducing their book Race in 
Cyberspace, scholars Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert Rod- 
man explain that "race matters in cyberspace precisely because all of 
us who spend time online are already shaped by the ways in which 
race matters offline and we can't help but bring our own knowledge, 
experiences, and values with us when we log on." 8 

Cultural prejudice permeates social media. Explicit prejudice bub- 
bles up through the digital inscription of hateful epithets in com- 
ments sections and hatemongering websites, while the social networks 
people form online replicate existing social divisions. Some youth 
recognize the ways their experiences are constructed by and orga- 
nized around cultural differences; many more unwittingly calcify 
existing structural categories. 

158 inequality 

How American teens use social media reflects existing problems in 
society and reinforces deep-seated beliefs. This may seem like a let- 
down to those who hoped that technology could serve as a cultural 
panacea. But the implications of this unfulfilled potential extend 
beyond disappointment. Because prominent figures in society — 
including journalists, educators, and politicians — consider social 
media to be a source of information and opportunity, our cultural 
naivete regarding the ways social and cultural divisions are sewn into 
our mediated social fabric may have more damaging costs in the 
future. In order to address emerging inequities, we must consider the 
uneven aspects of the social platforms upon which we are building. 

Social media — and the possibility of connecting people across the 
globe through communication and information platforms — may 
seem like a tool for tolerance because technology enables people to see 
and participate in worlds beyond their own. We often identify teens, 
in particular, as the great beneficiaries of this new cosmopolitanism. 9 
However, when we look at how social media is adopted by teens, it 
becomes clear that the internet doesn't level inequality in any practical 
or widespread way. The patterns are all too familiar: prejudice, racism, 
and intolerance are pervasive. Many of the social divisions that exist 
in the offline world have been replicated, and in some cases amplified, 
online. Those old divisions shape how teens experience social media 
and the information that they encounter. This is because while tech- 
nology does allow people to connect in new ways, it also reinforces 
existing connections. It does enable new types of access to informa- 
tion, but people's experiences of that access are uneven at best. 

Optimists often point out that all who get online benefit by 
increased access to information and expanded connections, while 
pessimists often point to the potential for increased levels of inequal- 
ity. 10 Both arguments have merit, but it's also important to under- 
stand how inequalities and prejudices shape youth's networked lives. 
Existing social divisions — including racial divisions in the United 
States — are not disappearing simply because people have access to 
technology. Tools that enable communication do not sweep away 

inequality 159 

distrust, hatred, and prejudice. Racism, in particular, takes on new 
forms in a networked setting. Far from being a panacea, the internet 
simply sheds new light on the divisive social dynamics that plague 
contemporary society. 

The internet may not have the power to reverse long-standing soci- 
etal ills, but it does have the potential to make them visible in new 
and perhaps productive ways. When teens are online, they bring their 
experiences with them. They make visible their values and attitudes, 
hopes and prejudices. Through their experiences living in a mediated 
world in which social divisions remain salient, we can see and deal 
realistically with their more harmful assumptions and prejudices. 

Racism in a Networked Age 

In 1993, the New Yorker published a now infamous cartoon show- 
ing a big dog talking to a smaller dog in front of a computer moni- 
tor. 11 The caption reads, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a 
dog." Over the years, countless writers commenting on social issues 
have used this cartoon to illustrate how privacy and identity operate 
positively and negatively online. One interpretation of this cartoon is 
that embodied and experienced social factors — race, gender, class, 
ethnicity — do not necessarily transfer into the mediated world. As 
discussed earlier in the chapter on identity, many people hoped that, 
by going online, they could free themselves of the cultural shackles of 
their embodied reality. 

When teens go online, they bring their friends, identities, and net- 
work with them. They also bring their attitudes toward others, their 
values, and their desire to position themselves in relation to others. It 
is rare for anyone to be truly anonymous, let alone as disconnected 
from embodied reality as the New Yorker cartoon suggests. 11 Not only 
do other people know who you are online; increasingly, software 
engineers are designing and building algorithms to observe people's 
practices and interests in order to model who they are within a 
broader system. Programmers implement systems that reveal similar- 
ity or difference, common practices or esoteric ones. What becomes 

160 inequality 

visible — either through people or through algorithms — can affect 
how people understand social media and the world around them. 
How people respond to that information varies. 

During the 2009 Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards, 
thousands of those watching from home turned to Twitter to discuss 
the various celebrities at the ceremony. The volume of their commen- 
tary caused icons of the black community to appear in Twitter's 
"Trending Topics," a list of popular terms representing topics users 
are discussing on the service at any given moment. Beyonce, Ne-Yo, 
Jamie Foxx, and other black celebrities all trended, along with the 
BET Awards themselves. The visibility of these names on the Trend- 
ing Topics prompted a response from people who were not watching 
the award ceremony. In seeing the black names, one white teenage 
girl posted, "So many black people!" while a tweet from a young- 
looking white woman stated: "Why are all these black people on 
trending topics? Neyo? Beyonce? Tyra? Jamie Foxx? Is it black his- 
tory month again? LOL." A white boy posted, "Wow!! too many 
negros in the trending topics for me. I may be done with this whole 
twitter thing." Teens were not the only ones making prejudicial 
remarks. A white woman tweeted, "Did anyone see the new trending 
topics? I dont think this is a very good neighborhood. Lock the car 
doors kids." These comments — and many more — provoked outrage, 
prompting the creation of a blog called "omgblackpeople" and a series 
of articles on race in Twitter. 13 

Unfortunately, what happened on the night of the BET Awards is 
not an isolated incident. In 2012, two athletes were expelled from the 
London Olympics after making racist comments on Twitter. 14 Racism 
is also not just an issue only on Twitter, where black internet users are 
overrepresented compared with their online participation on other 
sites. 15 The now defunct site collected hundreds of 
comments from Facebook that began with "I'm not a racist, but . . ." 
and ended with a racist comment. For example, one Facebook status 
update from a teen girl that was posted to the site said, "Not to be a 
racist, but I'm starting to see that niggers don't possess a single ounce 


of intellect." While creators of sites like intend to 
publicly shame racists, racism remains pervasive online. 

In countless online communities, from YouTube to Twitter to 
World of Warcraft, racism and hate speech run rampant. 16 Messages 
of hate get spread both by those who agree with the sentiment and 
also by those who critique it. After the critically acclaimed movie The 
Hunger Games came out, countless fans turned to Twitter to com- 
ment on the casting of Rue, a small girl described in the book as 
having "dark brown skin and eyes." Tweets like "Call me a racist but 
when I found out rue was black her death wasn't as sad" and "Why 
does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie" 
sparked outrage among antiracists who forwarded the messages to 
call attention to them, thereby increasing the visibility of this hostil- 
ity' 7 On one hand, calling attention to these messages shames those 
who contributed them. On the other, it incites a new type of hate, 
which continues to reinforce structural divides. 

Annoyed with what she perceived to be a lack of manners among 
Asian and Asian American students at her school, Alexandra Wallace 
posted a racist tirade on YouTube mocking students of Asian descent 
at UCLA in March 2011. The video depicts Wallace, a white blond- 
haired girl, criticizing Asian students for not being considerate of 
others. The central message of the video focuses on her complaint 
that Asian students are rude because they talk on their cell phones in 
the library. To emphasize her point, she pretends to speak in a speech 
pattern that she believes sounds Asian, saying, "Ching chong ling 
long ting tong," in a mocking tone. 

The video — "Asians in the Library" — quickly attracted attention 
and spread widely, prompting an outpouring of angry comments, 
reaction videos, and parodies. For example, comedic singer-songwriter 
Jimmy Wong produced a video in which he sang a mock love song 
called "Ching Chong!" in response to Wallace's video. Hundreds of 
videos — with millions of views — were designed to publicly shame her 
and others with similar racist attitudes. A college lifestyle blog dug up 
bikini pictures of Wallace and posted them under the title "Alexandra 

162 inequality 

Wallace: Racist UCLA Student's Bikini Photos Revealed." 18 Mean- 
while, Wallace — and her family — began receiving death threats, 
prompting her to drop out of UCLA and seek police protection. As 
one of her professors explained to the UCLA newspaper, "What Wal- 
lace did was hurtful and inexcusable, but the response has been far 
more egregious. She made a big mistake and she knows it, but they 
responded with greater levels of intolerance." 19 

Social media magnifies many aspects of daily life, including racism 
and bigotry. Some people use social media to express insensitive and 
hateful views, but others use the same technologies to publicly shame, 
and in some cases threaten, people who they feel are violating social 
decorum. 10 By increasing the visibility of individuals and their 
actions, social media doesn't simply shine a spotlight on the problem- 
atic action; it enables people to identify and harass others in a very 
public way. This, in turn, reinforces social divisions that plague 
American society. 

Segregation in Everyday Life 

In the United States, racism is pervasive, if not always visible. Class 
politics intertwine with race, adding another dimension to existing 
social divisions. Teens are acutely aware of the power of race and class 
in shaping their lives, even if they don't always have nuanced lan- 
guage to talk about it; furthermore, just because teens live in a cul- 
ture in which racism is ever present doesn't mean that they understand 
how to deal with its complexities or recognize its more subtle effects. 
Some don't realize how a history of racism shapes what they observe. 
Heather, a white sixteen-year- old from Iowa, told me, 

I don't want to sound racist, but it is the black kids a lot of times 
that have the attitudes and are always talking back to the teach- 
ers, getting in fights around the school, starting fights around 
the school. I mean yeah, white kids of course get into their 
fights, but the black kids make theirs more public and so it's 
seen more often that oh, the black kids are such troublemakers. 

inequality 163 

In examining high school dynamics in the 1980s, linguist Penelope 
Eckert argued that schools are organized by social categories that 
appear on the surface to be about activities but in practice are actu- 
ally about race and class. 21 1 noticed this as I went through the rosters 
of various sports teams at a school in North Carolina. At first, when 
I asked students about why different sports seemed to attract students 
of one race exclusively, they told me that it was just what people were 
into. Later, one white boy sheepishly explained that he liked basket- 
ball but that, at his school, basketball was a black sport and thus not 
an activity that he felt comfortable doing. As a result of norms and 
existing networks, the sports teams in many schools I visited had 
become implicitly coded and culturally divided by race. Many teens 
are reticent to challenge the status quo. 

Even in schools at which teens prided themselves on being open- 
minded, I found that they often ignorantly reproduced racial divi- 
sions. For example, in stereotypical fashion, teens from more 
privileged backgrounds would point to having friends of different 
races as "proof" of their openness. 21 When I asked about racial divi- 
sions in more privileged schools or in schools situated in progressive 
communities, I regularly heard the postracial society mantra, with 
teens initially telling me that race did not matter in friend groups at 
their school. And then we'd log in to their Facebook or MySpace 
page and I would find clues that their schools were quite segregated. 
For example, I'd find that friend networks within diverse schools 
would be divided by race. When I'd ask teens to explain this, they'd 
tell me that the divisions I was seeing were because of who was in 
what classes or who played what sport, not realizing that racial segre- 
gation played a role in those aspects of school life, too. 

While on a work trip in Colorado, I met a group of privileged teens 
who were in town because their parents were at the meeting I was 
attending. Bored with the adult conversations, I turned to the teens 
in a casual manner. I started talking with Kath, a white seventeen- 
year-old who attended an east coast private school renowned for its 
elite student body and its phenomenal diversity program. Our casual 

164 inequality 

conversation turned to race dynamics in schools; she was a passion- 
ate, progressive teen who took the issue of race seriously. Curious to 
see how this played out in her community, I asked her if we could 
visit her Facebook page together. I offered her my computer, and she 
gleefully logged into her account. Given the small size of her school, 
I wasn't surprised that she was friends with nearly everyone from her 
grade and many students from other grades. I asked her to show me 
her photos so that we could look at the comments on them. Although 
her school had recruited students from diverse racial and ethnic 
backgrounds, most of those who had left comments on her profile 
were white. I pointed this out to her and asked her to bring up pro- 
files of other students in her grade from different racial and ethnic 
backgrounds. In each case, the commenters were predominantly of 
the same broad racial or ethnic background as the profile owner. 
Kath was stunned and a bit embarrassed. In her head, race didn't 
matter at her school. But on Facebook people were spending their 
time interacting with people from similar racial backgrounds. 

When I analyzed friending patterns on social network sites with 
youth, I consistently found that race mattered. In large and diverse 
high schools where teens didn't befriend everyone in their school, 
their connections alone revealed racial preference. In smaller diverse 
schools, the racial dynamics were more visible by seeing who com- 
mented on each other's posts or who appeared tagged together in 
photographs. Only when I visited schools with low levels of diversity 
did race not seem to matter in terms of online connections. For 
example, in Nebraska, I met a young Muslim woman of Middle 
Eastern descent in a mostly white school. She had plenty of friends 
online and off, and not surprisingly, all were white. Of course, this 
did not mean that she was living in a world where ethnic differences 
didn't matter. Her classmates posted many comments about Middle 
Eastern Muslim terrorists on Facebook with caveats about how she 
was different. 

Birds of a feather flock together, and personal social networks tend 
to be homogeneous, as people are more likely to befriend others like 


them. 23 Sociologists refer to the practice of connecting with like- 
minded individuals as homophily. Studies have accounted for 
homophily in sex and gender, age, religion, education level, occupa- 
tion, and social class. But nowhere is homophily more strongly visible 
in the United States than in the divides along racial and ethnic lines. 
The reasons behind the practice of homophily and the resultant 
social divisions are complex, rooted in a history of inequality, bigotry, 
oppression, and structural constraints in American life. 24 

It's easy to lament self-segregation in contemporary youth culture, 
but teens' choice to connect to people like them isn't necessarily born 
out of their personal racist beliefs. In many cases, teens reinforce 
homophily in order to cope with the racist society in which they live. 
In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? psy- 
chologist Beverly Tatum argues that self-segregation is a logical 
response to the systematized costs of racism. For teens who are facing 
cultural oppression and inequality, connecting along lines of race and 
ethnicity can help teens feel a sense of belonging, enhance identity 
development, and help them navigate systematic racism. Homophily 
isn't simply the product of hatred or prejudice. It is also a mechanism 
of safety. Seong, a seventeen-year-old from Los Angeles, echoed this 
sentiment when she told me, "In a way we connect more 'cause we see 
each other and we're like, oh." Familiarity mattered to Seong because, 
as a Korean immigrant, she feels isolated and confused by American 
norms that seem very foreign to her. She doesn't want to reject her 
non-Korean peers, but at times, she just wants to be surrounded by 
people who understand where she comes from. Still, teens' willingness 
to accept — and thus expect — self-segregation has problematic roots 
and likely contributes to ongoing racial inequality. 25 

Race-based dynamics are a fundamental part of many teens' 
lives — urban and suburban, rich and poor. When they go online, 
these fraught dynamics do not disappear. Instead, teens reproduce 
them. Although the technology makes it possible in principle to 
socialize with anyone online, in practice, teens connect to the people 
that they know and with whom they have the most in common. 

166 inequality 

MySpace vs. Facebook 

In a historic small town outside Boston, I was sitting in the library 
of a newly formed charter school in the spring of 2007. One of the 
school's administrators had arranged for me to meet different stu- 
dents to get a sense of the school dynamics. Given what I knew about 
the school, I expected to meet with a diverse group of teens, but I 
found myself in a series of conversations with predominantly white, 
highly poised, academically motivated teens who were reluctant to 
talk about the dynamics of inequality and race at their school. 

After I met a few of her peers, Kat, a white fourteen-year-old from 
a comfortable background, came into the library, and we started 
talking about the social media practices of her classmates. She made 
a passing remark about her friends moving from MySpace to Face- 
book, and I asked to discuss the reasons. Kat grew noticeably uncom- 
fortable. She began simply, noting that "MySpace is just old now and 
it's boring." But then she paused, looked down at the table, and con- 
tinued. "It's not really racist, but I guess you could say that. I'm not 
really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto 
or whatever." Her honesty startled me so I pressed to learn more. I 
asked her if people at her school were still using MySpace and she 
hesitantly said yes before stumbling over her next sentence. "The 
people who use MySpace — again, not in a racist way — but are usu- 
ally more like ghetto and hip-hop rap lovers group." Probing a little 
deeper, Kat continued to stare at and fiddle with her hands as she told 
me that everyone who was still using MySpace was black, whereas all 
of her white peers had switched to Facebook. 26 

During the 2006-2007 school year, when MySpace was at its 
peak in popularity with American high school students, Facebook 
started to gain traction. Some teens who had never joined MySpace 
created accounts on Facebook. Others switched from MySpace to 
Facebook. Still others eschewed Facebook and adamantly stated that 
they preferred MySpace. The presence of two competing services 
would not be particularly interesting if it weren't for the makeup of 
the participants on each site. During that school year, as teens chose 


between MySpace and Facebook, race and class were salient factors in 
describing which teens used which service. The driving force was 
obvious: teens focused their attention on the site where their friends 
were socializing. 27 In doing so, their choices reified the race and class 
divisions that existed within their schools. As Anastasia, a white 
seventeen-year- old from New York, explained in a comment she left 
on my blog: 

My school is divided into the "honors kids," (I think that is self- 
explanatory), the "good not-so-honors kids," "wangstas," (they 
pretend to be tough and black but when you live in a suburb in 
Westchester you can't claim much hood), the "latinos/hispan- 
ics," (they tend to band together even though they could fit into 
any other groups) and the "emo kids" (whose lives are allllllways 
filled with woe). We were all in MySpace with our own little 
social networks but when Facebook opened its doors to high 
schoolers, guess who moved and guess who stayed behind. . . . 
The first two groups were the first to go and then the "wangstas" 
split with half of them on Facebook and the rest on MySpace. . . . 
I shifted with the rest of my school to Facebook and it became 
the place where the "honors kids" got together and discussed 
how they were procrastinating over their next AP English essay. 

When I followed up with Anastasia, I learned that she felt as though 
it was taboo to talk about these dynamics. She stood by her comment 
but also told me that her sister said that she sounded racist. Although 
the underlying segregation of friendship networks defined who 
chose what site, most teens didn't use the language of race and class 
to describe their social network site preference. Some may have 
recognized that this was what was happening, but most described the 
division to me in terms of personal preference. 

My interviews with teens included numerous descriptive taste-based 
judgments about each site and those who preferred them. Those who 
relished MySpace gushed about their ability to "pimp out" their profiles 
with "glitter," whereas Facebook users viewed the resultant profiles 

168 inequality 

as "gaudy," "tacky," and "cluttered." Facebook fans relished the site's 
aesthetic minimalism, while MySpace devotees described Facebook pro- 
files as "boring," "lame," "sterile," and "elitist." Catalina, a white fifteen- 
year-old from Austin, told me that Facebook is better because "Facebook 
just seems more clean to me." What Catalina saw as cleanliness, Indian- 
Pakistani seventeen-year-old Anindita from Los Angeles labeled "sim- 
ple." She recognized the value of simplicity, but she preferred the "bling" 
of MySpace because it allowed her to express herself. 

In differentiating Facebook and MySpace through taste, teens inad- 
vertently embraced and reinforced a host of cultural factors that are 
rooted in the history of race and class. Taste is not simply a matter of 
personal preference; it is the product of cultural dynamics and social 
structure. In Distinction, philosopher Pierre Bourdieu describes how 
one's education and class position shape perceptions of taste and how 
distinctions around aesthetics and tastes are used to reinforce class in 
everyday life. The linguistic markers that teens use to describe Face- 
book and MySpace — and the values embedded in those markers — 
implicitly mark class and race whether teens realize it or not. 

Just as most teens believe themselves to be friends with diverse 
groups of people, most teens give little thought to the ways in which 
race and class connect to taste. They judge others' tastes with little 
regard to how these tastes are socially constructed. Consider how 
Craig, a white seventeen-year-old from California, differentiated 
MySpace and Facebook users through a combination of social and 
cultural distinctions: 

The higher castes of high school moved to Facebook. It was 
more cultured, and less cheesy. The lower class usually were 
content to stick to MySpace. Any high school student who has 
a Facebook will tell you that MySpace users are more likely to 
be barely educated and obnoxious. Like Peet's is more cultured 
than Starbucks, and Jazz is more cultured than bubblegum pop, 
and like Macs are more cultured than PC's, Facebook is of a 
cooler caliber than MySpace. 

inequality 169 

In this 2008 blog post entitled "Myface; Spacebook," Craig distin- 
guished between what he saw as highbrow and lowbrow cultural 
tastes, using consumption patterns to differentiate classes of people 
and describe them in terms of a hierarchy. By employing the term 
"caste," Craig used a multicultural metaphor with ethnic and racial 
connotations that runs counter to the American ideal of social mobil- 
ity. In doing so, he located his peers in immutable categories defined 
by taste. 

Not all teens are as articulate as Craig with regard to the issue of 
taste and class, but most recognized the cultural distinction between 
MySpace and Facebook and marked users according to stereotypes 
that they had about these sites. When Facebook became more broadly 
popular, teens who were early adopters of Facebook started lament- 
ing the presence of "the MySpace people." Again, Craig described 
this dynamic: 

Facebook has become the exact thing it tried to destroy. Like Ani- 
kin Skywalker, who loved justice so much, and he decided to play 
God as Darth Vader, Facebook has lost its identity and mission. It 
once was the cool, cultured thing to do, to have a Facebook, but 
now its the same. Girls have quizzes on their Facebooks: "Would 
you like to hook up with me? Yes, No" without a shred of dig- 
nity or subtlety. Again, I must scroll for 5 minutes to find the 
comment box on one's Facebook. The vexation of bulletins of 
MySpace are now replaced by those of applications. It alienated 
its "cultured" crowd by the addition of these trinkets. 

From Craig's perspective, as Facebook became popular and main- 
stream, it, too, became lowbrow. The cultural distinction that existed 
during the 2006—2007 school year had faded, and now both sites felt 
"uncivilized" to Craig. He ended his post with a "desperate" plea to 
Google to build something "cultured." 

In differentiating MySpace and Facebook as distinct cultural 
spaces and associating different types of people with each site, teens 
used technology to reinforce cultural distinctions during the time in 

170 inequality 

which both sites were extraordinarily popular. These distinctions, far 
from being neutral, are wedded to everyday cultural markers. In con- 
stituting an "us" in opposition to "them," teens reinforce social divi- 
sions through their use of and attitudes toward social media. Even as 
teens espouse their tolerance toward others with respect to embodied 
characteristics, they judge their peers' values, choices, and tastes 
along axes that are rooted in those very characteristics. 

The racial divide that these teens experienced as they watched their 
classmates choose between MySpace and Facebook during the 
2006—2007 school year is one that happens time and again in tech- 
nology adoption. In some cases, white teens use different technolo- 
gies than teens of color. For example, Black and Latino urban youth 
embraced early smartphones like the Sidekick, but the device had 
limited traction among Asian, white, and suburban youth. In other 
cases, diverse populations adopt a particular tool, but practices within 
the service are divided along race and class lines. Such was the case in 
2013 on both Facebook and Twitter, where teens' linguistic and visual 
conventions — as well as their choice of apps — were correlated with 
their race. 28 

People influence the technology practices of those around them. 
Because of this, the diffusion of technology often has structural fea- 
tures that reflect existing social networks. As teens turn to social 
media to connect with their friends, they consistently reproduce net- 
works that reflect both the segregated realities of everyday life and 
the social and economic inequalities that exist within their broader 
peer networks. Teens go online to hang out with their friends, and 
given the segregation of American society, their friends are quite 
likely to be of the same race, class, and cultural background. 

Networks Matter 

The fact that social media reproduces — and makes visible — existing 
social divisions within American society should not be surprising, but 
it does challenge a persistent fantasy that the internet will dissolve and 
dismantle inequalities and create new opportunities to bring people 

inequality 171 

together across race and class lines. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary 
Rodham Clinton espoused such idealism in a speech at the Newseum 
in which she argued: "The internet can serve as a great equalizer. By 
providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, net- 
works can create opportunity where none exists. . . . Information net- 
works have become a great leveler, and we should use them to help lift 
people out of poverty." 29 This rhetoric assumes that, because the inter- 
net makes information more readily available to more people than ever 
before, access to the internet will address historical informational and 
social inequities. Yet just because people have access to the internet 
does not mean that they have equal access to information. Information 
literacy is not simply about the structural means of access but also 
about the experience to know where to look, the skills to interpret 
what's available, and the knowledge to put new pieces of information 
into context. In a world where information is easily available, strong 
personal networks and access to helpful people often matter more than 
access to the information itself. 30 

In a technological era defined by social media, where information 
flows through networks and where people curate information for 
their peers, who you know shapes what you know. When social divi- 
sions get reinforced online, information inequities also get repro- 
duced. When increased access to information produces information 
overload, sifting through the mounds of available information to 
make meaning requires time and skills. Those whose networks are 
vetting information and providing context are more privileged in this 
information landscape than those whose friends and family have 
little experience doing such information work. 31 

For many information needs, people turn to people around them. 
Sociologists have shown that social networks affect people's job pros- 
pects, health, and happiness. 31 Opportunities for social and economic 
support depend heavily on personal connections. Teens turn to their 
networks to learn about college opportunities. They also develop a 
sense of what's normative by watching those who surround them. 
When it comes to information and opportunity, who youth know 

172 inequality 

matters. Just because teens can get access to a technology that can 
connect them to anyone anywhere does not mean that they have 
equal access to knowledge and opportunity. 33 

In his famous trilogy The Information Age, sociologist Manuel Cas- 
tells argued that the industrial era is ending and that an information 
age has begun. His first volume — The Rise of the Network Society — 
makes the case for the power of networks as the organizational infra- 
structure of an economy based on information. Technology plays a 
central role in the network society that Castells recognizes is unfold- 
ing, and he documents the technological divide that put certain cities 
in better or worse positions to leverage the economic changes taking 
place. Although critics have accused Castells of technological 
determinism, Castells's analysis is more fruitfully understood as a 
critical accounting of what economic and cultural shifts are possible 
because of technology and why not everyone will benefit equally 
from these shifts. 34 In short, not everyone will benefit equally because 
networks — both social and technical — are neither evenly distributed 
nor meritocratic. 

Social media does not radically rework teens' social networks. As a 
result, technology does not radically reconfigure inequality. The 
transformative potential of the internet to restructure social networks 
in order to reduce structural inequality rests heavily on people's abil- 
ity to leverage it to make new connections. This is not how youth use 
social media. 

Not only are today's teens reproducing social dynamics online, but 
they are also heavily discouraged from building new connections that 
would diversify their worldviews. The "stranger danger" rhetoric dis- 
cussed in the chapter on danger doesn't just affect teens' interactions 
with adults; many teens are actively discouraged from developing rela- 
tionships with other teens online for fear that those teens may turn 
out to be adults intending to harm them. Not all teens buy into this 
moral panic, but when teens do make connections online, they focus 
on engaging with people who share their interests, tastes, and cultural 
background. For these teens, turning to people who seem familiar 

inequality 173 

allows them to feel safe, confident, and secure. They reinforce the 
homophilous social networks they inhabit instead of using technology 
to connect across lines of difference. Access to a wide range of people 
does not guarantee a reconfiguration of social connections. 

The limited scope of teens' engagement with people from diverse 
backgrounds — and the pressure that they receive to not engage with 
strangers — is particularly costly for less privileged youth. Although 
everyone benefits from developing a heterogeneous social network, 
privileged youth are more likely to have connections to people with 
more privilege and greater access to various resources, opportunities, 
and types of information. When information opportunities are teth- 
ered to social networks, how social relations are constructed matters 
for every aspect of social equality. When social divisions are rein- 
forced — and inequities across social networks reproduced — there are 
material, social, and cultural consequences. 

The issue of inequality gets realized when information is struc- 
tured to flow only to certain groups of people. During the 2006- 
2007 school year — the period when teens were segmenting themselves 
into Facebook and MySpace — many college admissions officers also 
started using social media for college recruitment. They created 
online profiles, produced spreadable videos, and invited high school 
students to talk with them and student representatives. Although 
millions of teenagers were active exclusively on MySpace, most of the 
colleges tailored their recruitment efforts to Facebook. When I asked 
admissions officers about their decision to focus on Facebook, they 
invariably highlighted a lack of resources and a need to prioritize. 
Universally, when I pointed out that black and Latino youth were 
more likely to be on MySpace and that their decision was effectively 
targeting primarily white and Asian students, they were stunned. 
They had never considered the cultural consequences of their choices. 

At the time of this book's writing, it's quite common for compa- 
nies to turn to Linkedln, a professional social network site, to recruit 
college interns and new graduates. Recruiters typically prioritize can- 
didates who already have contacts to the company as performed 

174 inequality 

through social media. Some even explicitly ask applicants to list 
everyone they know who already works at the company Those who 
don't know anyone at the company are disadvantaged as candidates. 
This tends to reinforce same-ness because people's social networks 
are rarely diverse. This also provides an additional obstacle for under- 
represented minorities, those who come from less advantaged com- 
munities, and people who generally lack social capital. 

We don't live in a postracial society, and social media is not the 
cultural remedy that some people hoped it would become. Today's 
youth live in a world with real and pervasive social divisions. Those 
dynamics are reproduced online and have significant implications for 
how teens make sense of public life. People help define what's norma- 
tive for their friends and contacts. And everyone's opportunities are 
dependent on whom they know. Having access to the information 
available through the internet is not enough to address existing struc- 
tural inequities and social divisions. The internet will not inherently 
make the world more equal, nor will it automatically usher today's 
youth into a tolerant world. Instead, it lays bare existing and entrenched 
social divisions. 

inequality 175 

7 literacy 

are todays youth digital 

Because teens grew up in a world in which the internet has always 
existed, many adults assume that youth automatically understand 
new technologies. From this perspective, teens are "digital natives," and 
adults, supposedly less knowledgeable about technology and less capable 
of developing these skills, are "digital immigrants." Two Massachusetts 
state government officials echoed this notion in 2010 : "The children who 
attend school today are digital natives who think nothing of learning 
through the use of technology. As adults, we are digital immigrants who 
remember lessons delivered through film strips and overhead projectors. 
In a state where digital pioneers flourished, the educational system should 
catch up to the students." 1 Many of today's teens are indeed deeply 
engaged with social media and are active participants in networked pub- 
lics, but this does not mean that they inherently have the knowledge or 
skills to make the most of their online experiences. The rhetoric of "dig- 
ital natives," far from being useful, is often a distraction to understand- 
ing the challenges that youth face in a networked world. 

In my fieldwork, I often found that teens must fend for themselves 
to make sense of how technologies work and how information 
spreads. Curiosity may lead many teens to develop meaningful 
knowledge about social media, but there is huge variation in knowl- 
edge and experience. I interviewed teens who used programming 
scripts to build complex websites. I also talked with teens who didn't 


know the difference between a web browser and the internet. I 
encountered teens who had nuanced understandings of different 
kinds of web content and helped create and spread internet culture 
via popular memes. I also met teens who couldn't recognize spam. 

Teens may make their own media or share content online, but this 
does not mean that they inherently have the knowledge or perspective 
to critically examine what they consume. Being exposed to informa- 
tion or imagery through the internet and engaging with social media 
do not make someone a savvy interpreter of the meaning behind 
these artifacts. Technology is constantly reworking social and infor- 
mation systems, but teens will not become critical contributors to 
this ecosystem simply because they were born in an age when these 
technologies were pervasive. 

It is dangerous to assume that youth are automatically informed. It 
is also naive to assume that so-called digital immigrants have noth- 
ing to offer. 2 Even those who are afraid of technology can offer valu- 
able critical perspective. Neither teens nor adults are monolithic, and 
there is no magical relation between skills and age. Whether in school 
or in informal settings, youth need opportunities to develop the skills 
and knowledge to engage with contemporary technology effectively 
and meaningfully. Becoming literate in a networked age requires 
hard work, regardless of age. 

The Emergence of the Digital Native 

The notion of digital natives has political roots, mostly born out of 
American techno-idealism. In an effort to force the global elite to rec- 
ognize the significance of an emergent mediated society, John Perry 
Barlow, a renowned poet and cyberlibertarian, leveraged this concept to 
divide the world into "us" and "them." Barlow, best known as the for- 
mer lyricist for The Grateful Dead, was quite comfortable using pro- 
vocative words to express political views. As mentioned in the 
Introduction, he penned "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyber- 
space" for the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1996. His manifesto 
was an explicit challenge to the "Governments of the Industrial World." 

literacy 177 

In positioning those who "come from Cyberspace" in opposition to the 
old world order, he juxtaposed the "native" against the "immigrant": 

You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in 
a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear 
them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental respon- 
sibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our 
world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the 
debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global 
conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from 
the air upon which wings beat. 3 

Barlow was probably not the first to suggest that the young are 
native to the emergent digital landscape, but his poetic framing high- 
lights the implicit fear that stems from the generational gap that has 
emerged around technology. 4 He intended his proclamation to pro- 
voke reaction, and it did. But many people took this metaphor liter- 
ally. It has become popular in public discourse to promote the idea 
that "natives" have singular technical powers and skills. The sugges- 
tion that many take from Barlow's proclamation is that adults should 
fear children's supposedly natural-born knowledge. 

Following a similar line of thinking, Douglas Rushkoff argues in 
his 1996 book Playing the Future that children should be recognized 
for their ingenuity. He metaphorically describes the differences in 
linguistic development between older immigrants and children who 
grow up in a society whose dominant language is different than their 
parents' native tongue. He uses the concepts of immigrants and 
natives to celebrate children's development in the digital age. 

In describing youth as natives, both Barlow and Rushkoff frame 
young people as powerful actors positioned to challenge the status quo. 
Yet many who use the rhetoric of digital natives position young people 
either as passive recipients of technological knowledge or as learners who 
easily pick up the language of technology the way they pick up a linguis- 
tic tongue. These notions draw on the frames that Barlow and Rushkoff 
put forward but twist them in ways that are far from their intention. 

178 literacy 

In 2001, educational consultant Marc Prensky penned an article 
entitled "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." In that article, he 
claims that "today's students think and process information funda- 
mentally differently from their predecessors." 5 He argues that they 
should be called "digital natives" because "our students today are all 
'native speakers' of the digital language of computers, video games 
and the Internet." Like Barlow and Rushkoff, Prensky also positions 
older people as immigrants, noting, "Those of us who were not born 
into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become 
fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technol- 
ogy are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants." 
Although Prensky claims to have coined the term digital native inde- 
pendently of either Rushkoff or Barlow, many people cite Prensky as 
the originator because he popularized the notion. 6 Like Barlow and 
Rushkoff, Prensky did so in order to celebrate young people's pur- 
ported fluency with technology. 

As the term took off and began to permeate popular discourse, 
scholars began critiquing the underlying implications. From an ethnic 
studies perspective, the language of "natives" and "immigrants" is 
particularly fraught. At a private event I attended, anthropologist 
Genevieve Bell invited everyone in the room to interrogate the under- 
lying implications of these terms. She reminded the room that, 
throughout history, powerful immigrants have betrayed native popu- 
lations while destroying their spiritual spaces and asserting power over 
them. Although this is not the story of all immigrants, this reminder 
raises serious questions about what is recognized in discussions of 
digital natives. Is the goal to celebrate youth savvy or to destroy their 
practices? Do people intend to recognize native knowledge as valuable 
or as something that should be restricted and controlled? 

The notion of the digital native, whether constructed positively or 
negatively, has serious unintended consequences. Not only is it fraught, 
but it obscures the uneven distribution of technological skills and 
media literacy across the youth population, presenting an inaccurate 
portrait of young people as uniformly prepared for the digital era and 

literacy 179 

ignoring the assumed level of privilege required to be "native." Worse, 
by not doing the work necessary to help youth develop broad digital 
competency, educators and the public end up reproducing digital 
inequality because more privileged youth often have more opportuni- 
ties to develop these skills outside the classroom. Rather than focusing 
on coarse generational categories, it makes more sense to focus on the 
skills and knowledge that are necessary to make sense of a mediated 
world. Both youth and adults have a lot to learn. 

We live in a technologically mediated world. Being comfortable 
using technology is increasingly important for everyday activities: 
obtaining a well-paying job, managing medical care, engaging with 
government. Rather than assuming that youth have innate technical 
skills, parents, educators, and policymakers must collectively work to 
support those who come from different backgrounds and have differ- 
ent experiences. Educators have an important role to play in helping 
youth navigate networked publics and the information-rich environ- 
ments that the internet supports. Familiarity with the latest gadgets 
or services is often less important than possessing the critical knowl- 
edge to engage productively with networked situations, including the 
ability to control how personal information flows and how to look for 
and interpret accessible information. 

Most formal educational settings do not prioritize digital compe- 
tency, in part because of the assumption that teens natively under- 
stand anything connected to technology and in part because existing 
educational assessments do not require this prioritization. Although 
youth are always learning as they navigate these systems, adults — 
including parents, educators, and librarians — can support them fur- 
ther by helping turn their experience into knowledge. 7 

Youth Need New Literacies 

Many of the technologies that youth encounter, from Google to 
Wikipedia, require users to engage critically with the information 
they're seeing. When we assume that youth will just absorb all things 
digital through exposure, we absolve ourselves of our responsibility to 

180 literacy 

help teenagers develop necessary skills. Too often, we focus on limit- 
ing youth from accessing inaccurate or problematic information. This 
is a laudable goal, but alone it does teens a fundamental disservice. 

Youth must become media literate. 8 When they engage with media — 
either as consumers or producers — they need to have the skills to ask 
questions about the construction and dissemination of particular 
media artifacts. What biases are embedded in the artifact? How did the 
creator intend for an audience to interpret that artifact, and what are 
the consequences of that interpretation? 

The notion of media literacy predates the internet. In the United 
Kingdom, media literacy efforts date back to the 1930s, when educators 
argued that the public needed the skills to critically think about propa- 
ganda. 9 At that time, posters had emerged as key war propaganda. Media 
literacy education didn't get started in the United States until the 1960s, 
after advertising practices were well under way. 10 Educators argued that 
informed citizens needed to be able to critically evaluate the messages 
that surround them. As new genres of media proliferated, many were 
concerned that audiences could be manipulated into believing a particu- 
lar narrative. Although fact-checking can often serve to combat certain 
aspects of manipulative messaging, people must also learn to question 
the biases and assumptions underpinning the content they see. 

Even though media literacy programs have been discussed and 
haphazardly implemented for decades, most people have little train- 
ing in being critical of the content that they consume. Long before 
the internet, critical media literacy has never been considered essen- 
tial in schools or communities. Instead, schools have relied on trust- 
worthy publishers, information curators, and other reputable sources. 
In a networked world, in which fewer intermediaries control the flow 
of information and more information is flowing, the ability to criti- 
cally question information or media narratives is increasingly impor- 
tant. Censorship of inaccurate or problematic content does not 
provide youth the skills they will one day need to evaluate informa- 
tion independently. They need to know how to grapple with the 
plethora of information that is easily accessible and rarely vetted. 

literacy 181 

And given the uneven digital literacy skills of youth, we cannot aban- 
don them to learn these lessons on their own." 

But what must they learn? Certainly, they need the critical skills 
that media literacy advocates have promoted for decades. For exam- 
ple, they need to be able to understand the biases in advertising, 
whether the ads are disseminated online or through more traditional 
media. But in a digitally saturated society, media literacy is only the 
first step. Technical skills are increasingly important. Few teens have 
a basic understanding of how the computer systems they use every 
day work. Some are curious enough to develop this knowledge, but it 
takes time and effort as well as opportunities, networks, and training 
to become active participants and contributors. 

Although developing technical skills is not widespread, doing so 
can become a part of meaningful participation. In the early days of 
MySpace's popularity, a few teens learned that they could modify the 
look and feel of their profiles by inserting code in the form of HTML, 
CSS, or JavaScript. This was the result of a bug in MySpace's develop- 
ment code. After watching teens explore self-expression through 
code, the company decided not to patch the bug in order to see how 
users would personalize their pages. Excited by the ability to create 
"layouts" and "backgrounds," teens started learning enough code 
to modify their profiles. Some teens became quite sophisticated tech- 
nically as they sought to build extensive, creative profiles. Others 
simply copied and pasted code that they found online. But this tech- 
nical glitch — combined with teens' passion for personalizing their 
MySpace profiles — ended up creating an opportunity for teens to 
develop some technical competency. 12 MySpace eventually began 
blocking the inserted code due to security issues and, instead, created 
an interface for users to modify their profiles. This simplified the 
process and resulted in fewer technical problems, but it also closed 
the unique learning opportunity that MySpace had accidentally 

In order to attract wide audiences, many technologies are designed 
to be extraordinarily simple. This was not always true. I spent 

182 literacy 

countless hours as a teen pouring through manuals, debugging net- 
work hardware, and learning technical syntax in order to socialize 

When technologies are designed to make everyday use as easy as 
possible, it is not necessary for users to learn the technical skills that 
early internet adoption required. Although it is not necessary to be 
technically literate to participate, those with limited technical liter- 
acy aren't necessarily equipped to be powerful citizens of the digital 
world. As new technologies emerge to enable people to access infor- 
mation, the issues brought forth by media literacy and technological 
familiarity intersect to create new challenges. Empowering youth 
requires much more than calling them native participants. 

The Politics of Algorithms 

Corinne, a white thirteen-year-old from Massachusetts, proudly 
exclaimed in a group setting that she didn't use Wikipedia. When 
asked why, she explained, "I've heard that it's not true, and usually if 
I'm looking for something that I want, and it's true, I usually go on 
Google." Corinne's teachers had encouraged her to use Google to 
search for information. They told her that Wikipedia was full of inac- 
curacies because anyone could edit it. Like many of her peers, Corinne 
had interpreted this to mean that anything that appeared at the top of 
the Google result page must be true. If not, why would it appear at the 
top? And why would her teachers recommend it? She trusted the con- 
tent on Google because adults had told her that it was a trustworthy 
site. She saw Google as having a similar reputation as that of the text- 
books that her teacher assigned. Wikipedia, on the other hand, was 
not to be trusted because her teacher said so. 

Wikipedia and Google are fundamentally different sites. Wikipedia 
is a crowdsourced encyclopedia built using technologies that allow for 
easy editing. An active community of volunteer moderators shapes the 
content, regulating it through a set of collectively determined social 
and technical protocols that provide a framework for appropriate user 
edits. Users regularly contest and debate content, as moderators and 

literacy 183 

other passionate volunteers work diligently to resolve disagreements and 
assert their own beliefs about what is legitimate, notable, and of high 

Google, by contrast, is both a for-profit company and a search engine 
that is monetized through advertising. 13 Google is not in the business of 
verifying content or assessing content's quality. Nor does it have editors 
whose job it is to verify sources of content. Rather, proprietary algo- 
rithms written by the company's engineers produce the results. The 
algorithms that underpin this powerful search engine rely on links, 
text, and other data signals to ascertain which pages should appear 
at the top for any query. Because Google is the source of so much traf- 
fic, countless people, corporations, and organizations engage in a prac- 
tice known as search engine optimization in which they manipulate 
information in order to maximize the likelihood that a particular page 
will get a high ranking. In response, Google continuously alters its algo- 
rithms to minimize the efficacy of those trying to manipulate the 
results. 14 

Although the pages that Google offers are highly likely to be topi- 
cally relevant with regard to the query, the company's employees do 
not try to assess the quality of a given page. There are countless sites 
dedicated to conspiracy theories and celebrity gossip that have a high 
ranking, and Google is happy to provide this content if that's what a 
searcher wishes to find. Google aims to provide links to pages that 
are relevant to the given search. This is not the same as vouching 
for the accuracy of those pages. Many teens I met assumed that some- 
one verifies every link that Google shares. This is both naive and 

Everywhere I went, I heard parents, teachers, and teens express 
reverence toward Google. They saw Google as a source of trusted 
information in a digital ecosystem filled with content of dubious 
quality. More important, many of the people I met believed that 
Google was neutral, unlike traditional news sources such as Fox News 
or the New York Times. Most people take for granted that someone, 
typically the editor in chief, chooses what stories appear on the 

184 literacy 

front page of a newspaper or which are covered in a TV segment. 
Conversely, people naively assume that algorithms, procedural sets of 
instructions for calculating an output, such as the ones produced by 
Google, must not have nearly the same biases as an editor. 

The notion of an algorithm is foreign to most people, including 
most youth. But algorithms are fundamental to how many computa- 
tional systems, including Google, work. Most people who use search 
engines do not understand that they are made up of complex machine 
learning algorithms. Even those who do don't necessarily understand 
how those algorithms work. The specifics of corporate algorithms, 
like Google's, are considered trade secrets. To complicate matters 
more, those who build machine learning algorithms for companies 
like Google cannot account for all of the decisions that the algo- 
rithms will make as they evolve based on input. 

Although understanding the particulars of the technology is not 
necessary, it is important to recognize that algorithms are not neu- 
tral. When engineers are building machine learning algorithms, they 
typically use training data and, in some cases, classifications pro- 
vided by the engineer to help the algorithm analyze the data. These 
systems are often designed to cluster data in order to provide results. 
Engineers then test those results with queries that they believe should 
have a "right" answer, or at least a sensible one. People — and their 
biases — are involved at each stage. They choose what data to train a 
system on, what classifications matter, and which examples to test. 
They make very human decisions about how to adjust the algorithms 
to provide results that they believe are of high quality. As communi- 
cation scholar Tarleton Gillespie has argued, there are politics to 
algorithms. 15 

The results that a search engine produces may reveal biases in the 
underlying data, or they may highlight how the weights chosen by 
engineers prioritize certain content over others. Although engineers 
diligently work to clean the data and minimize biases, they are unable 
to eliminate their own biases. And because of the complicated nature 
of the algorithms and the massive quantities of underlying data that 

literacy 185 

algorithms must analyze, engineers cannot easily predict what query 
will produce what output. 16 

Increasingly, the results people get from search engines like Google 
are highly personalized and dependent on what Google knows about 
the person doing the query, including demographic information, 
search query history, and data obtained through social media. This 
process results in differential information retrieval, with different 
people receiving dissimilar results. Some tout such approaches as 
helpful for users, but others are more cynical about such personaliza- 
tion. In his 2011 book, The Filter Bubble, political activist and technol- 
ogy creator Eli Pariser argues that personalization algorithms 
produce social divisions that undermine any ability to create an 
informed public. For example, users with a long history of clicking on 
conservative or liberal news sources might only be shown results 
that align with their political views, thereby reinforcing an existing 
political gulf. 

As scholars at Harvard's Berkman Center have shown, search 
engines like Google shape the quality of information that youth 
experience. 17 Teens view Google as the center of the digital informa- 
tion universe, even though they have little understanding of how the 
search results are produced, let alone any awareness of how personal- 
ization affects what they see. They uncritically trust Google, just as 
most adults do. In Iowa, white eighteen-year-old Wolf explained, "If 
you can't Google it, it doesn't exist." His white seventeen-year-old 
friend Red agreed, adding, "Google knows all." 

Given the lack of formal gatekeepers and the diversity of content 
and authors, it's often hard to determine credibility online. Because 
youth do not learn to critically assess the quality of information they 
access, they simply look for new intermediaries who can help them 
determine what's valuable. For better or worse, they take Google's 
results for granted while also dismissing high-quality content from 
other sites that they have been taught to distrust. Like their parents, 
they assume that Google is neutral and that sites like Wikipedia have 
dubious information. 

186 literacy 

Wikipedia as a Site of Knowledge Production 

Wikipedia has a bad rap in American K-12 education. The de facto 
view among many educators is that a free encyclopedia that anyone 
can edit must be filled with inaccuracies and misleading informa- 
tion. Students' tendency to use the service as their first and last source 
for information only reinforces their doubts. Ignoring the educa- 
tional potential of Wikipedia, teachers consistently tell students to 
stay clear of Wikipedia at all costs. I heard this sentiment echoed 
throughout the United States. 

In Massachusetts, white fifteen-year-old Kat told me that "Wiki- 
pedia is a really bad thing to use because they don't always cite their 
sources. . . . You don't know who's writing it." Brooke, a white fifteen- 
year-old from Nebraska explained that " [teachers] tell us not to [use 
Wikipedia] because a lot of — some of the information is inaccurate." 
These comments are nearly identical to the sentiments I typically 
hear from parents and teachers. Although it is not clear whether stu- 
dents are reproducing their teachers' beliefs or have come to the same 
conclusion independently, students are well aware that most teachers 
consider Wikipedia to have limited accuracy. 

When people dismiss Wikipedia, they almost always cite limited 
trust and credibility, even though analyses have shown that Wikipedia's 
content is just as credible as, if not more reliable than, more traditional 
resources like Encyclopedia Britannica. li Teachers continue to prefer 
familiar, formally recognized sources. Educators encourage students to 
go to the library. When they do recommend digital sources, they view 
some as better than others without explaining why. 19 As Aaron, a white 
fifteen-year-old from Texas explained, "A lot of teachers don't want you 
to use [Wikipedia] as a source in a bibliography because it's not techni- 
cally accredited. And they'd rather you use a university professor's 
website or something." Although Aaron didn't know what it meant for 
a source to be accredited, he had a mental model of which sources 
his teachers viewed as legitimate and which they eschewed. Similarly, 
Heather, a white sixteen-year-old from Iowa, explained, "Our school 
says not to use Wikipedia as our main source. You can use it as like a 

literacy 187 

second or third source but not as a main source. They say MSN Encarta. 
. . . They say to use that because it's more reliable." When I asked 
students why they should prefer sites like Encarta and professors' 
webpages, they referenced trust and credibility, even though students 
couldn't explain what made those particular services trustworthy. 

Although nearly every teenager I met told me stories about teachers 
who had forbidden them from using Wikipedia for schoolwork, 
nearly all of them used the site anyhow. Some used the site solely as a 
starting point for research, going then to Google to find sources they 
could cite that their teachers considered more respectable. Others 
knowingly violated their teachers' rules and worked to hide their reli- 
ance on Wikipedia. In Boston, I met a teen boy who told me that his 
teachers never actually checked the sources, so he used Wikipedia to 
get information he needed. When he went to list citations, he said 
they came from more credible sources like Encarta, knowing that his 
teachers would never check to see whether a particular claim actually 
came from Encarta. In other words, he faked his sources because he 
believed his teachers wouldn't check. Although he had found a way 
of working around his teachers' rules, he had failed to learn why they 
wanted citations in the first place. All he had learned was that his 
teachers' restrictions on using Wikipedia were "stupid." 

Because many adults assume that youth are digitally savvy — and 
because they themselves do not understand many online sources — 
they often end up giving teens misleading or inaccurate information 
about what they see online. A conflict emerges as teens turn to 
Wikipedia with uncritical eyes while teachers deride the site without 
providing a critical lens with which to look at the information 

Wikipedia can be a phenomenal educational tool, but few educa- 
tors I met knew how to use it constructively. Unlike other sources of 
information, including encyclopedias and books by credible authors, 
the entire history of how users construct a Wikipedia entry is visible. 
By looking at the "history" of a page, a viewer can see when someone 
made edits, who did the editing, and what that user edited. By look- 

188 literacy 

ing at the discussion, it's possible to read the debates that surround the 
edits. Wikipedia isn't simply a product of knowledge; it's also a record 
of the process by which people share and demonstrate knowledge. 

In most educational institutions, publishers and experts vet much 
of the content that teens encounter and there is no discussion about 
why something is accurate or not. Some teachers deem certain publi- 
cations trustworthy and students treat that content as fact. Reading 
old history books and encyclopedias can be humorous — or depress- 
ing, depending on the content and your point of view — because of 
what the writers assumed to be accurate at one point in time or in one 
cultural context. Just like today, past students who were given those 
materials were also taught that all of the information they were 
receiving was factual. 

Although many students view textbooks as authoritative material, 
the content is neither neutral nor necessarily accurate. Textbooks 
often grow outdated more quickly than schools can replace them. The 
teens I interviewed loved finding inaccuracies in their own textbooks, 
such as lists of planets that included Pluto. Of course, not all inaccura- 
cies are the product of mistakes or outdated facts. Some writers insert 
biases into texts because they reinforce certain social or political 
beliefs. In the United States, Texas is notorious for playing a signifi- 
cant role in shaping the content of textbooks in all states. 20 So when 
educators in Texas insist on asserting that America's "founding 
fathers" were all Christian, it creates unease among historians who do 
not believe this to be accurate. What goes into a textbook is highly 

History, in particular, differs depending on perspective. I grew up 
hearing examples of this in my own family. Born to a British father 
and a Canadian mother, my mother moved to New York as a young 
girl. She recalls her confusion when my grandfather complained 
about her American history lessons and threatened to destroy her text- 
book. Compared to the British narratives my patriotic British veteran 
grandfather had learned, the American origin story was outright 

literacy 189 

American and British high schools teach events like the American 
Revolutionary War very differently — and rarely do schools in 
either country consider such things as the role of women or the 
perspectives of slaves or Native Americans. This is a topic of deep 
interest to historians and the driving force behind books like Howard 
Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which tells American 
history through the perspective of those who "lost." Although many 
people believe that the winner gets to control the narrative, accounts 
also diverge when conflicting stories don't need to be resolved. When 
countries like the United States and the United Kingdom produce 
their own textbooks, they don't need to arrive at mutually agreeable 
narratives. However, when people like my mother cross the ocean 
and must face conflicting perspectives, there's often little room for 
debating these perspectives. In my mother's childhood household, 
there was a right history and a wrong history. According to my grand- 
father, my mother's textbook was telling the wrong history. 

Wikipedia often, but not always, forces resolution of conflicting 
accounts. Critics may deride Wikipedia as a crowdsourced, user- 
generated collection of information of dubious origin and accuracy, 
but the service also provides a platform for seeing how knowledge 
evolves and is contested. The Wikipedia entry on the American Rev- 
olution is a clear product of conflicting ideas of history, with informa- 
tion that stems from British and American textbooks interwoven and 
combined with information on the role of other actors that have been 
historically marginalized in standard textbooks. 

What makes the American Revolution Wikipedia entry interesting 
is not simply the output in the form of a comprehensive article but the 
extensive discussion pages and edit history. On the history pages, those 
who edit Wikipedia entries describe why they made a change. On dis- 
cussion pages, participants debate how to resolve conflicts between edi- 
tors. There's an entire section on the American Revolution discussion 
page dedicated to whether colonists should be described as "patriots" — 
the American term — or "insurgents" — the British term. In the discus- 
sion, one user suggests a third term: "revolutionaries." Throughout the 

190 literacy 

Wikipedia entry, the editors collectively go to great lengths to talk 
about "American patriots" or use terms like "revolutionaries" or simply 
describe the colonists as "Americans." The American Revolution dis- 
cussion page on Wikipedia is itself a lesson about history. Through 
archived debate, the editors make visible just how contested simple 
issues are, forcing the reader to think about why writers present infor- 
mation in certain ways. I learned more about the different viewpoints 
surrounding the American Revolution by reading the Wikipedia dis- 
cussion page than I learned in my AP American history class. 

Although most teens that I met who used the internet knew of 
Wikipedia and most of those who had visited the site knew it was 
editable, virtually none knew about the discussion page or the history 
of edits. No one taught them to think of Wikipedia as an evolving 
document that reveals how people produce knowledge. Instead they 
determined whether an article was "good" or "bad" based on whether 
they thought that their teachers could be trusted when they criticized 
Wikipedia. This is a lost opportunity. Wikipedia provides an ideal 
context for engaging youth to interrogate their sources and under- 
stand how information is produced. 

Wikipedia is, by both its nature and its commitments, a work in 
progress. The content changes over time as users introduce new 
knowledge and raise new issues. The site has its share of inaccuracies, 
but the community surrounding Wikipedia also has a systematic 
approach to addressing them. At times, people actively and intention- 
ally introduce false information, either as a hoax or for personal gain. 
Wikipedia acknowledges these problems and maintains a record for 
observers. Wikipedia even maintains a list of hoaxes that significantly 
affected the site. 21 

Many digital technologies undermine or destabilize institutions of 
authority and expertise, revealing alternative ways of generating and 
curating content. 21 Crowdsourced content — such as what is provided 
to Wikipedia — is not necessarily better, more accurate, or more com- 
prehensive than expert-vetted content, but it can, and often does, 
play a valuable role in making information accessible and providing a 

literacy 191 

site for reflection on the production of knowledge. The value of 
Wikipedia would be minimal if it weren't for sources that people 
could use in creating entries. Many of Wikipedia's history articles, 
for example, rely heavily on content written by historians. What 
Wikipedia does well is combine and present information from many 
sources in a free, publicly accessible, understandable way while also 
revealing biases and discussions that went into the production of that 
content. Even with their limitations and weaknesses, projects like 
Wikipedia are important for educational efforts because they make 
the production of knowledge more visible. They also highlight a 
valuable way of using technology to create opportunities for increased 
digital literacy. 

Digital Inequality 

The challenges brought forth by media literacy stem from and rein- 
force the broader issue of digital inequality, which is often elided by the 
frame of digital natives. As media theorist Henry Jenkins eloquently 

Talk of "digital natives" helps us to recognize and respect the new 
kinds of learning and cultural expression which have emerged 
from a generation that has come of age alongside the personal 
and networked computer. Yet, talk of "digital natives" may also 
mask the different degrees of access to and comfort with emerg- 
ing technologies experienced by different youth. Talk of digital 
natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digi- 
tal divide in terms of who has access to different technical plat- 
forms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to 
certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural 
experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital 
natives implies that there is a world which these young people 
all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather 
than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all 
of us. 13 

192 literacy 

By focusing on the "digital divide" between levels of access and types 
of competencies, Jenkins highlights how a well-intentioned public 
uses the rhetoric surrounding digital natives to obfuscate and rein- 
force existing inequalities. 

The politics surrounding the digital divide date back several 
decades. In the late 1990s, journalists, academics, and governmental 
agencies began using the term digital divide to describe the gap in 
access between rich and poor. 14 In its earliest stages of use, the con- 
struct referred to a gap in device availability and internet connectivity 
between the digital "haves and have nots." 2S Activists and politicians 
rallied to close the gap in access, primarily focusing on a "devices and 
conduits" approach that looked to provide digitally underprivileged 
populations with internet-connected computers. 26 Government agen- 
cies viewed technology — and the internet in particular — as playing a 
critical role in economic opportunities. They wanted to ensure "access 
to the fundamental tools of the digital economy" as a priority invest- 
ment for the future of the US economy. 27 

As public debates raged over how to address inequality brought 
about by the digital divide, it soon became clear that access should 
not be conflated with use. The digital divide soon encompassed dis- 
courses surrounding technology skills and media literacy. 28 Scholars 
and governmental agencies began to argue that access alone mattered 
little if people didn't know how to use the tools in front of them. 29 As 
more youth gained access through schools and public institutions, 
and as a result of the decline in costs of technology, scholars increas- 
ingly raised concern about the unevenness of skills, literacy, and 
"socially meaningful" access. 30 

By 2011, 95 percent of American teenagers had some form of 
access to the internet, whether at home or at school. 31 What that 
access looks like and what teens do with that access varies greatly. 32 
Concerned about how increased access was prompting the media to 
declare the digital divide over, Jenkins and his coauthors starting rais- 
ing concerns over the emerging "participation gap." They highlighted 
that differential access results in different levels of engagement and 

literacy 193 

participation. 33 For example, a teen who uses a library computer with 
filtered access for an hour a day has a very different experience with 
the internet than one who has a smartphone, laptop, and unrestricted 
connectivity. 34 

I witnessed this phenomenon time and again in my fieldwork. I 
met teens whose only access to Facebook was on shared computers at 
a Boys and Girls Club after school. They knew how to get around the 
site, upload photos, modify privacy settings, and socialize with their 
friends. At first blush, they looked like sophisticated users. But as I 
started watching more intently, I realized that their knowledge about 
how to use technology to meet their own needs was nowhere as 
sophisticated as those who had their own computers at home and 
accessed Facebook via their iPhones. The differences weren't notice- 
able when it came to navigating Facebook for social purposes. They 
appeared when I watched how both privileged and disadvantaged 
teens turned to social media to get information and support. 

In New York, I watched as a teen girl used her Android phone. She 
texted and regularly used apps like Twitter and Facebook. Enthusias- 
tically, she showed me how she moved seamlessly between multiple 
semi-synchronous conversations. But when I asked her about how 
she used her phone to look things up for school, she let out a deep 
sigh. She switched over to the browser, opened up Google, and typed 
in a test query. Then she handed the phone to me, commenting on 
how long it took for her browser to load a given page. She told me 
that it was possible to surf the web on her phone, but it was time- 
consuming and frustrating, so she rarely bothered. She preferred 
to look things up on the computer at school, but she rarely had that 
type of access. If she really needed something, she texted her friends 
to see if anyone knew the answer or had access to a "real" computer. 
By most measures, she had full internet access through her smart- 
phone, but she was acutely aware of the limitations of that kind of 

Variations in experience also result in another form of digital 
inequality: differential levels of skills. For more than a decade, soci- 

194 literacy 

ologist Eszter Hargittai has surveyed internet users, including youth, 
about their web skills. 35 She shows that far from being a generational 
issue, there are significant differences in media literacy and technical 
skills even within age cohorts. Variation in skills is linked in part to 
differences in access to computers. On one end of the spectrum, 
those teens who have their own laptops and smart phones often 
access the internet wherever they go for everything from fashion 
advice to homework assignments. At the other end of the spectrum 
are teens who have limited opportunities to access the internet and 
then only in highly regulated, filtered contexts like school computer 
centers or libraries. Not surprisingly, Hargittai found that teens' 
technological skills are strongly correlated with the quality of their 
access. Quality of access is, also unsurprisingly, correlated with socio- 
economic status. As mentioned earlier, Hargittai argues that many 
youth, far from being digital natives, are quite digitally naive. 36 

There is little doubt that youth must have access, skills, and media 
literacy to capitalize on opportunities in a networked society, but 
focusing on these individual capacities obscures how underlying 
structural formations shape teens' access to opportunities and infor- 
mation. When information flows through social networks and inter- 
action shapes experience, who you know matters. Youth who are 
surrounded by highly sophisticated technical peers are far more likely 
to develop technical skills themselves. In communities where techni- 
cal wherewithal is neither valued nor normative, teens are far less 
likely to become digitally savvy. As media scholars Kate Crawford 
and Penelope Robinson have argued, networks of association and 
knowledge powerfully affect what information and knowledge 
people integrate into their lives. 37 

How we picture the issue of digital inequality also has political 
implications. As communication scholar Dmitry Epstein and his 
coauthors argue, when society frames the digital divide as a problem 
of access, we see government and industry as the responsible party 
for addressing the issue. 38 When society understands the digital 
divide as a skills issue, we place the onus of learning how to manage 

literacy 195 

on individuals and families. At times, we also invoke educational 
entities and public institutions to support individual learning, but 
those conversations rarely include a discussion of government fund- 
ing. The burden of responsibility shifts depending on how we con- 
struct the problem rhetorically and socially. The language we use 

Beyond Digital Natives 

Most scholars have by now rejected the term digital natives, but the 
public continues to embrace it. This prompted John Palfrey and Urs 
Gasser, coauthors of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation 
of Digital Natives, to suggest that scholars and youth advocates should 
reclaim the concept and make it more precise. 39 They argue that dis- 
missing the awkward term fails to account for the shifts that are at 
play because of new technologies. To correct for misconceptions, they 
offer a description of digital natives that they feel highlight the 
inequalities discussed in this chapter: "Digital natives share a com- 
mon global culture that is defined not by age, strictly, but by certain 
attributes and experiences related to how they interact with informa- 
tion technologies, information itself, one another, and other people 
and institutions. Those who were not 'born digital' can be just as 
connected, if not more so, than their younger counterparts. And not 
everyone born since, say, 1982, happens to be a digital native." 40 

In their writings, Palfrey and Gasser go to great lengths to clarify 
who is — and who is not — a digital native. They highlight the impor- 
tance of the emergent participation gap and the challenges brought 
about as a result of digital inequality. Although their desire to reclaim 
the term digital native is laudable, it's not clear that many people have 
recognized the very valid nuance in their argument. More often than 
not, many people continue to cite Palfrey and Gasser's work as "proof" 
that all kids are digital natives. Although I respect Palfrey and Gasser's 
stance, I'm not convinced that the term itself can be reclaimed. Even 
though they offer a nuanced argument, scholars and journalists con- 
tinue to point to them while using the term to refer to a whole gen- 

196 literacy 

eration. At this point, the problematic frame of the digital native often 
undermines efforts to celebrate and critically examine how teens do 
and do not engage with social media. 

I believe that the digital natives rhetoric is worse than inaccurate: 
it is dangerous. Because of how society has politicized this language, 
it allows some to eschew responsibility for helping youth and adults 
navigate a networked world. If we view skills and knowledge as inher- 
ently generational, then organized efforts to achieve needed forms of 
literacy are unnecessary. In other words, a focus on today's youth as 
digital natives presumes that all we as a society need to do is be patient 
and wait for a generation of these digital wunderkinds to grow up. A 
laissez-faire attitude is unlikely to eradicate the inequalities that con- 
tinue to emerge. Likewise, these attitudes will not empower average 
youth to be more sophisticated internet participants. 

When Marc Prensky popularized the notion of digital natives, he 
never expected this metaphor to have a significant life, let alone to jus- 
tify passivity by adults. 41 Instead, he argues, we should be looking to 
increase "digital wisdom," both in creating empowering tools that 
enable understanding and in empowering people to use existing tools 
wisely. Recognizing that technology can be used in both harmful and 
beneficial ways, Prensky maintains that it is important that we all work 
to be more thoughtful about our engagement with technology. 

Developing wisdom requires active learning. Teens acquire many 
technological skills through extensive experimentation with social 
media and curiosity-driven exploration. Because teens turn to these 
services to socialize with peers, they often gain the skills that are part 
of informal social learning. 42 However, many of the media literacy 
skills needed to be digitally savvy require a level of engagement that 
goes far beyond what the average teen picks up hanging out with 
friends on Facebook and Twitter. Technical skills, such as the ability 
to build online spaces, require active cultivation. These skills must be 
studied deliberately. Teens may develop an intuitive sense for how to 
navigate social interactions online through casual engagement and 
experience, but this does not translate to an understanding of why 

literacy 197 

search queries return some content before others. Nor does experi- 
ence with social media push young people to learn how to build their 
own systems, versus simply using a social media platform. Teens' 
social status and position alone do not determine how fluent or 
informed they are vis-a-vis technology. 

Technology will increasingly play an important role in society. 
Comfort with technology is often a prerequisite for obtaining even 
the most basic of jobs. Government agencies are increasingly turning 
to technology to provide services and engage citizens. And many 
high-status opportunities — from higher education to new forms of 
employment — expect people to be media literate and technologically 
advanced. It behooves all of us to move past assumptions about 
today's youth. Both adults and youth need to develop media literacy 
and technological skills to be active participants in our information 
society. Learning is a lifelong process. 

198 literacy 

8 searching for a public of 
their own 

Not far from my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I met a 
white, middle-class sixteen-year-old named Emily As she told me 
about her life and what she liked to do, I couldn't help but feel nos- 
talgic. Although she lived in a different town and went to a different 
school, so many of her cultural touchstones were familiar to me, 
including the Turkey Hill convenience stores that dotted the area 
and Park City, the shopping mall that attracted people for miles 
around. Emily told me that she loved the mall and attended many 
school sporting events. But as I probed, I also learned that she didn't 
particularly care about shopping and that she had never watched a 
football game or wrestling match in her life, even though she had 
attended many such events. 

For Emily, going to places where her peers gather is a freedom — 
even if she isn't actually watching the game or buying clothes. When 
she's out in public, "It's a time when you can just fool around and be 
free and do whatever you want. It's not fair to be tied down to chores 
or school. You need that little bit of freedom." Her younger brother 
prefers hanging out at friends' houses, but Emily would much rather 
gather in public places because these settings expand the social pos- 
sibilities. "If you go [out] with your friends, there might be other 
people you run into that are your friends too. I would say it's more of 
an opportunity to see more of your friends than just going over to a 
friend's house. Going over to a friend's house, there might be one 
friend or maybe three. Whereas going to the mall, it can be seven or 


twelve." Emily told me that she takes any opportunity possible to 
gather with friends in public settings. She attends basketball games, 
track meets, and any other school sports event that her friends might 
attend. She goes to the movies whenever she can get a ride, even if the 
film her friends choose doesn't particularly excite her. She wants the 
opportunity to hang out in the theater before the show. 

Emily looks for places where she can hang out, joke around with 
friends, and simply be herself. Park City is one place that offers her 
this freedom. That very mall was the go-to place for my peer group as 
well. Back then, we never had any money to buy anything more luxu- 
rious than an Auntie Anne's pretzel, but shopping was never the point. 
We wanted to go to the mall because the people we knew went there. 

Unlike Emily, I was often forbidden from going to Park City. When 
I was in high school, the local business community had teamed up with 
the school district to create an alternative high school for students who 
were not succeeding in traditional schools. They decided to place this 
experimental school at Park City because that's where so many of the 
students they were seeking to attract were hanging out. Those kids — 
and, by extension, the mall — had a bad reputation for violence, truancy, 
and delinquency more generally. Park City has changed tremendously 
in the twenty years since that school first opened; it is now considered 
an upscale establishment with both midrange and high-end brands. 
Although Emily and her friends meet up at the food court, the presence 
of teenagers there pales in comparison to what I remember growing up. 
Whenever I go home, I'm always surprised at how pristine, respectable, 
and boring Park City feels. As I talked with other teens in the area, I 
learned that the mall was still seen as dangerous even though it had 
none of the grime or grit that was present in my teen years. Most teens 
were allowed to hang out there. 

Many of the teens that I met — both in Pennsylvania and else- 
where — craved the freedoms that Emily had. They were desperate 
for the opportunity to leave their homes to gather with friends. 
Although not universal, most could attend school functions. Some 
could get together with friends in public venues on weekends. Yet 

200 searching for a public of their own 

over and over again and across the country, teens complained to me 
that they never had enough time, freedom, or ability to meet up with 
friends when and where they wanted. To make up for this, they 
turned to social media to create and inhabit networked publics. 

The Creation of Networked Publics 

The topics addressed in this book often hinge on teens' interest in 
getting meaningful access to public spaces and their desire to con- 
nect to their peers. Rather than fighting to reclaim the places and 
spaces that earlier cohorts had occupied, many teens have taken a 
different approach: they've created their own publics. Teens find 
social media appealing because it allows them access to their friends 
and provides an opportunity to be a part of a broader public world 
while still situated physically in their bedrooms. Through social 
media, they build networks of people and information. As a result, 
they both participate in and help create networked publics. 

As discussed in the Introduction and throughout the book, 
networked publics serve as publics that both rely on networked 
technologies and also network people into meaningful imagined 
communities in new ways. Publics are important, not just for enabling 
political action, but also for providing a mechanism through which 
we construct our social world. In essence, publics are the fabric of 

Through engagement with publics, people develop a sense of others 
that ideally manifests as tolerance and respect. Although laws provide 
concrete rules for what is and is not acceptable in a particular jurisdic- 
tion, social norms shape most interactions. People develop a sense for 
what is normative by collectively adjusting their behavior based on 
what they see in the publics they inhabit and understand. This does 
not mean that the world is inherently safe or that people always respect 
their neighbors but that social processes underpinning publics buffer 
people from hatred by creating common cultural ground. 

Teens want access to publics to see and be seen, to socialize, and to 
feel as if they have the freedoms to explore a world beyond the heavily 

searching for a public of their own 

constrained one shaped by parents and school. By and large, just as 
society formerly wrote women out of civic life, we now prohibit teen- 
agers from many aspects of public life. Adults justify the exclusion of 
youth as being for their own good or as a necessary response to their 
limited experience and cognitive capacity. 

Rather than accepting their social position, many teens have clam- 
ored to find ways to access and participate in a whole host of publics, 
from social publics to political ones. Often, they turn to social media 
and other networked technologies to do so. 

What teens do online cannot be separated from their broader desires 
and interests, attitudes and values. Their relation to networked pub- 
lics signals their interest in being a part of public life. It does not sug- 
gest that they're trying to go virtual or that they're using technology 
to escape reality. Teens' engagement with social media and other tech- 
nologies is a way of engaging with their broader social world. 

The world that American teens live in is highly circumscribed. 
Their lives are regulated both by their parents and by institutional 
forces. Compulsory schooling is a contemporary reality, even if home- 
schooling provides an alternative. Laws that define when, where, and 
how they can gather shape teens' activities and mobility. In the same 
vein, teens' worldviews are influenced by cultural dynamics that 
underpin American society more generally. They are exposed to media 
narratives that convey broader cultural values, and they are living 
within a system that is both consumerist and commercial in nature. 

The networked publics that teens inhabit are not public in the 
sense of being state-run. In fact, most of the public spaces that teens 
encounter are private, whether at the mall or on Facebook. 1 Their 
presence and the traces that they leave are often used for commercial 
interests. They are targets of marketing online, at school, and in 
most spaces they visit. 2 This trend in American childhood predates 
the internet, but there is little doubt that it is being reinforced by 
social media and playing out in networked publics. Rather than cri- 
tiquing that dynamic, as many excellent scholars have done, this 
book instead takes it at face value because this is the only world that 

202 searching for a public of their own 

today's teens know. 3 Teens accept this version of networked publics 
because, however flawed, the spaces and communities provided by 
social media are what they have available to them in their quest to 
meaningfully access public life. The commercial worlds that they 
have access to may not be ideal, but neither is the limited mobility 
that they experience nor the heavily structured lives that they lead. 

To Be Public and To Be in Public 

Enamored with Parisian society, French poet Charles Baudelaire 
documented the public life that unfolded as people strolled along city 
streets. He wrote of flaneurs — individuals who came to the streets 
not to go anywhere in particular but in order to see and be seen. In 
Baudelaire's conception, the flaneur is neither fully an exhibitionist 
nor fully a voyeur at any moment, but a little of both all the time. 
The flaneur is an intimate part of the city, gaining from both seeing 
and being seen, performing and watching others. 

When teens turn to networked publics, they do so to hang out with 
friends and be recognized by peers. They share in order to see and be 
seen. They want to look respectable and interesting, while simultane- 
ously warding off unwanted attention. They choose to share in order 
to be a part of the public, but how much they share is shaped by how 
public they want to be. They are, in effect, digital flaneurs. 

As teens stroll the digital streets, they must contend with aspects of 
networked technologies that complicate the social dynamics in front 
of them. The issues of persistence, visibility, spreadability, and search- 
ability that I introduced in the first chapter and addressed through- 
out the book fundamentally affect their experiences in networked 
publics. They must negotiate invisible audiences and the collapsing 
of contexts. They must develop strategies for handling ongoing sur- 
veillance and attempts to undermine their agency when they seek to 
control social situations. 

Although most youth are simply trying to be a part of public life, 
the visibility of their online activities creates tremendous consterna- 
tion among adults who are uncomfortable with the possibility that 

searching for a public of their own 203 

teens might share something inappropriate on Instagram or interact 
with strangers on Twitter. This is where anxieties around online 
safety and privacy get coupled with broader societal concerns about 
race and class, sometimes becoming a source of tension. Teens are 
not ignorant of their parents' fears, but by and large, they see the 
opportunities presented by participating in public life as far out- 
weighing the possible consequences they may face. 

As teens work through the various issues that emerge around net- 
worked publics, they must struggle with what it means both to be pub- 
lic and to be in public. This often is framed through the language of 
privacy, and indeed, the tension between being public and being in 
public comes down to the ability to control the social situation. But the 
distinction also has to do with how teens relate to public life. 

In North Carolina, I met Manu, a seventeen-year-old boy of Indian 
descent who was active on both Facebook and Twitter. Initially, I 
assumed that he was using Twitter to create a public presence while 
keeping Facebook as a more intimate space. I was wrong. Facebook 
had become so pervasive in his peer group that he felt forced to con- 
nect with everyone he'd ever met. Twitter was different because Twit- 
ter had not yet become particularly popular in his community. The 
difference in audience — and how people on each site responded to 
his sharing — shaped his understanding of Facebook and Twitter. 
Whenever Manu posted something on Facebook, he felt that he was 
forcing everyone he'd ever met to consume it, whereas on Twitter, 
people opted in when they felt that what he was sharing was interest- 
ing. As he explained, "I guess Facebook is like yelling it out to a 
crowd, and then Twitter is just like talking in a room." 4 He posted 
messages he wanted to broadcast widely on Facebook while sharing 
whatever intimate thoughts were on his mind on Twitter. Manu's 
practice contradicts the assumptions then held by adults, who often 
saw Facebook as a more intimate site than Twitter because of each 
site's technical affordances and defaults. 

What makes a particular site or service more or less public is not 
necessarily about the design of the system but rather how it is situated 

204 searching for a public of their own 

within the broader social ecosystem. Although Facebook was ini- 
tially built to provide an intimate, private alternative to MySpace, 
Manu's practice reveals how — by becoming the de facto social media 
site for one billion people — it's often more experientially public than 
more publicly accessible sites that are not nearly as popular. In this 
way, the technical architecture of the system matters less than how 
users understand their relationship to it and how the public perceives 
any particular site. 

The tensions between the technologies that help create networked 
publics and the publics that are created through networked technolo- 
gies reveal how the nature of public-ness is actually being remade 
every day in people's lives. Twitter is not inherently public even if the 
content is broadly accessible, nor are people's experiences of Face- 
book private just because the content can be restricted. Both help 
create networked publics, but the nature of public-ness for teens ends 
up depending on how the people around them use available tools. 

What teens want from being in public — and how they understand 
publics — varies. Some teens see publics as a site of freedom, and they 
want to be able to roam free from adult surveillance. Whereas these 
teens want to be in public, other teens are looking to be public. They 
use the same technologies that allow them to engage in networked 
publics to magnify their voices, gather audiences, and connect with 
others on a large scale. 

Some teens who are seeking to be public are enamored by the sto- 
ries presented by media, including the "reality" of reality TV, the rich 
narratives of exploratory youth in novels, and the raucous adventures 
of celebrities. Teens often reference celebrities as individuals who 
achieve freedom and opportunities by being public. In this way, they 
blur the lines between being public and being in public. 

Long before the internet, there were teens who dreamed of or 
actively sought out broader engagement and tried to create publics 
from their own homes. Teens who want to be public often use media 
or new technologies to do so. In the 1980s and 1990s, some youth 
turned to pirate radio and homemade magazines, or zines, to connect 

searching for a public of their own 205 

with others. 5 Even though teen adoption of these technologies was 
not universal, popular films like Pump Up the Volume and Wayne's 
World celebrated these practices and the fun that could be had by 
being public. 

Social media has made being public much more accessible to teens, 
and many embrace popular technologies to build an audience and 
contribute their thoughts to the broader cultural ethos. I met teens 
who had cultivated hundreds of thousands — and even millions — of 
followers on MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. Some shared 
homemade videos, fashion commentary, or music they made with 
their friends. Others posted risque photos or problematic content in 
an effort to entice strangers. Their reasons varied, but an interest in 
attention is common. These teens relish the opportunity to be seen 
and be part of a broader conversation. 

Although some teens are looking for the attention that comes with 
being public, most teens are simply looking to be in public. Most are 
focused on what it means to be a part of a broader social world. They 
want to connect with and participate in culture, both to develop a 
sense of self and to feel as though they are a part of society. Some 
even see publics as an opportunity for activism. These teens are 
looking to actively participate in public life in order to make the 
world a better place. 

When Networked Publics Get Political 

Not only has social media enabled new ways of being public and 
being in public, but these same technologies have been used to recon- 
figure political publics as we know them. 6 Teens are often eschewed 
for being apolitical, but some teens are deeply and explicitly political 
in their activities, both online and off. 7 A networked public is not 
inherently a political public sphere, but some teens can and do bring 
their politics to their online engagement and use technology to help 
them be political. 8 

Around the world, people have leveraged social media and net- 
worked technologies to instantiate meaningful political activities. 

206 searching for a public of their own 

Using the internet and mobile phones to coordinate and communicate, 
activists have banded together and engaged different constituencies to 
resist political regimes. 9 Even the simple act of hanging out online to 
see and be seen has enormous potential for creating the civic networks 
that support real-world political engagement. 10 Teens' practices in 
social media are neither frivolous nor without impact in other parts of 
public and civic life, whether they are trying to be political or not. 

The majority of teens' engagement with networked publics is never 
expressly political, but there are notable exceptions that often go 
unacknowledged. In 2005, Congress introduced HR4437, the Border 
Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigrant Control Act. This 
bill, directed at undocumented people living in the United States, 
was rife with measures that would have had serious social justice and 
humanitarian consequences. Immigration advocates described it as 
draconian and opposed it. As HR4437 gained traction among anti- 
immigrant groups, opponents began taking to the streets in protest. 

In March 2006, immigrant rights groups organized massive pro- 
tests through Spanish-speaking media and traditional advocacy net- 
works. Many teen children of undocumented parents felt disconnected 
from the protests organized by more seasoned activists. They turned 
to MySpace and used text messaging to coordinate their own public 

On March 27, 2006, only a few days after immigrant rights groups 
hosted a massive protest, thousands of California high school students 
walked out of school and took to the streets to demand rights on behalf 
of their families. 11 In Los Angeles alone, more than twenty thousand 
students marched in protest. Students talked about how the bill repre- 
sented a form of racist oppression that would permit racial profiling. 
Others spoke about the fundamental problems with the economic sys- 
tem, about how Mexicans are a critical labor force that is systematically 
oppressed. Still others described how their parents came to America to 
give them a chance for a better life. They crafted banners and posters, 
brought flags to signify the diversity of cultures that people came from, 
and invoked Cesar Chavez and human rights in their chants. 

searching for a public of their own 207 

These teens were doing recognizable political work, despite adults' 
frequent dismissal of teens as having no civic interests and being oth- 
erwise politically disengaged. Were they celebrated? No. Rather than 
being complimented for their willingness to step forward and take a 
stance, the students were summarily dismissed. 

Public officials and school administrators spoke out against the stu- 
dents' actions and their use of technology for creating a disruptive 
situation by encouraging fellow students to skip school. They chas- 
tised the students for using political issues to justify mass truancy. 
The press, using the fear-mongering tactics discussed throughout this 
book, gave the impression that administrators were concerned for stu- 
dents' safety. 

In admonishing the students, administrators told the press that the 
students should return to school, where they could have conversations 
about immigration in a "productive" way. When Los Angeles mayor 
Antonio Villaraigosa spoke to the young protesters, he said: "You've 
come today, you registered your commitment to your families, your 
opposition to the Sensenbrenner legislation, but it's time to go back to 
school." 13 His tone was condescending, implying that a day at school 
was more important than this political act. Some adults invoked 
Cesar Chavez by telling students that the well-respected civil rights 
leader would be ashamed of them. The discussions on MySpace 
painted a different logic to these criticisms as students discussed how 
schools would be docked anywhere from thirty to fifty dollars in state 
funding for each student who did not attend class. 

The students faced steep consequences for their decision to protest. 
In some towns, authorities charged them with truancy for participat- 
ing. Many faced school detention and other punishments. Few adults 
recognized the teens for their ingenuity in using the tools available 
to them to engage directly in political action. Activists regularly 
face punishment for their activities, but these teens weren't even rec- 
ognized as activists. 

Teens' engagement around HR4437 was in many ways a typical 
protest, but many of the other forms of activism that teens engage in 

208 searching for a public of their own 

are far less commonplace among adults. Overwhelmingly, public 
leaders and journalists deem many actions that teens and young adults 
take in the name of protest as illegitimate. For example, during my 
fieldwork, I met a handful of teens who proudly associated themselves 
with Anonymous, an ad hoc collective that initially emerged to mock 
Scientology and question other powerful institutions. Anonymous' 
practices and the groups that they affiliate themselves with are a 
source of significant consternation for powerful adults. 

Anonymous is a moniker for a loosely coordinated group of people 
who share a commitment to challenging powerful entities anony- 
mously. As an entity, Anonymous gained notoriety when people asso- 
ciated with the network engaged in "hacktivist" tactics against the US 
government and American companies in December 2010. 14 After the 
nonprofit group WikiLeaks released classified US State Department 
diplomatic cables, the US government was outraged and put pressure 
on American companies to stop supporting the organization. Amazon 
deleted WikiLeaks' account and stopped hosting its content, and Pay- 
Pal canceled the organization's financial account. The founder of 
WikiLeaks, Australian citizen Julian Assange, became persona non 
grata, and the US government initiated a grand jury investigation to 
indict him. In response, hacktivists sought to bring down the servers 
of anti-WikiLeaks governmental and corporate entities and otherwise 
challenge the security of these organizations. 

As the incident unfolded, authorities arrested mostly teenagers and 
twenty-somethings in both the United States and the United Kingdom 
for their role in challenging authorities using technology. 15 The teens I 
met who identified themselves as part of Anonymous were not arrested, 
but many participated in the various political protests that those who 
used the moniker claimed as Anonymous activities, relishing the Guy 
Fawkes symbolism and the group's Robin Hood tactics. All the teens I 
met who were engaged with this movement saw their acts as political 
protests, even if authorities saw them as anarchic and destructive, ter- 
rorists and traitors. These young people saw themselves as political, 
even if adults did not sanction their approach to political engagement. 

searching for a public of their own 209 

Political engagement takes many forms. Although often even less 
recognized as political, many teens have used the tools of internet 
culture to express themselves politically. For example, the production 
and distribution of internet memes is a common form of self- 
expression, but it can also be a form of political speech. Memes start 
when a particular digital artifact — be it an image, a song, a hashtag, 
or a video — is juxtaposed with other text or other media to produce 
a loosely connected collection of media that share a similar base refer- 
ent. 16 Not only are these artifacts spread online, but people also iter- 
ate on them, creating new artifacts. 

In the second chapter, I referenced the rise of lolcats, a meme that 
emerges when people take pictures of cats and add captions using a 
consistent though not standard English grammar. Many memes, like 
lolcats, are simply entertaining. Others have more political compo- 
nents. Consider, for example, the Hitler Downfall meme. This meme 
is based on a video scene from a 2004 German film called Der Unter- 
gang that depicts Adolf Hitler getting angry with his subordinates. 
The meme works by people subtitling the German-language film 
with other possible political and nonpolitical situations that Hitler 
could be getting upset about. Over the years, these have included the 
US subprime mortgage debate, the use of the Digital Millennium 
Copyright Act to silence parodies and memes, the US government's 
frustration with National Security Administration whistleblower 
Edward Snowden, and Hitler learning that his Xbox Live account 
has been banned. 17 This meme mixes commentary with humor, all 
juxtaposed against a familiar historical reference. 

Even though not all Hitler Downfall videos are made by teens — 
and, in fact, it's not clear how many were — I met numerous teens who 
had made and shared the videos, as well as a few who had come up 
with their own. Producing — or even consuming — these videos 
requires understanding a historical context and developing a rich 
sense of media literacy. Although, as discussed in the previous chapter, 
we cannot take teens' technical or media acumen for granted, we must 
also not ignore that there are youth who are deeply and meaningfully 

210 searching for a public of their own 

engaged in using the skills they have to help construct publics that 
are, in fact, political. 

Not all teens are politically engaged, and many of the ways in 
which they do engage in political action are unrecognizable by adults 
because they take the form of commentary or involve acts of protest 
adults deem unacceptable. Their activities, controversial as they may 
be, reveal the more political side of networked publics. 

Living in and with Networked Publics 

Social media has become an integral part of American society. 
Today's teens — regardless of their personal levels of participation — are 
coming of age in an era defined by easy access to information and 
mediated communication. Innovations in social media will continue to 
emerge, making possible new interaction forms and complicating 
social dynamics in interesting ways. The rise of mobile devices is intro- 
ducing even more challenges, taking the already widespread notion of 
being "always on" to new levels and creating new pathways for navigat- 
ing physical spaces. As social media becomes increasingly ubiquitous, 
the physical and digital will be permanently entangled and blurry. New 
innovations will introduce new challenges, as people try to reimagine 
privacy, assert their sense of identity, and renegotiate everyday social 
dynamics. And if history is any indication, adults are bound to project 
the same fears and anxieties they have about social media onto what- 
ever new technology captures the imagination of future youth. 18 

Although in this book I describe the dynamics of American youth 
at a particular time, notably defined by the widespread adoption of 
social media, the underlying issues are by no means new. In using 
teen engagement with social media to think about a variety of socio- 
technical dynamics, my goal has been to shed light on broader cul- 
tural constructs and values that we take for granted. Claims about 
youth practices can be divisive, particularly when we judge individu- 
als, cohorts, and artifacts through twisted portrayals. 

It is easy to make technology the target of our hopes and anxieties. 
Newness makes it the perfect punching bag. But one of the hardest — 

searching for a public of their own 

and yet most important — things we as a society must think about in 
the face of technological change is what has really changed, and what 
has not. As computer scientist Vint Cerf has said, "The internet is a 
reflection of our society and that mirror is going to be reflecting what 
we see. If we do not like what we see in that mirror the problem is not 
to fix the mirror, we have to fix society." 19 It is much harder to exam- 
ine broad systemic changes with a critical lens and to place them in 
historical context than to focus on what is new and disruptive. 

Through their experimentation and challenges, today's teens are 
showcasing some of the complex ways in which technology intersects 
with society. They don't have all of the answers, but their path through 
this networked world provides valuable insight into how technology is 
being integrated into and shaping everyday life. 

Teens' struggles to make sense of the networked publics they inhabit — 
and the ways in which their practices reveal cultural fractures — high- 
light some of the challenges society faces as technology gets integrated 
into daily life. At the same time, teens are as they have always been, 
resilient and creative in repurposing technology to fulfill their desires 
and goals. When they embrace technology, they are imagining new pos- 
sibilities, asserting control over their lives, and finding ways to be a part 
of public life. This can be terrifying for those who are intimidated by 
youth or nervous for them, but it also reveals that, far from being a dis- 
traction, social media is providing a vehicle for teens to take ownership 
over their lives. 

As teens turn to and help create networked publics, they begin to 
imagine society and their place in it. Through social media, teens reveal 
their hopes and dreams, struggles and challenges. Not all youth are 
doing all right, just as not all adults are. Technology makes the strug- 
gles youth face visible, but it neither creates nor prevents harmful things 
from happening even if it can be a tool for both. It simply mirrors and 
magnifies many aspects of everyday life, good and bad. 

Growing up in and being a part of networked publics is compli- 
cated. The realities that youth face do not fit into neat Utopian or 
dystopian frames, nor will eliminating technology solve the problems 

212 searching for a public of their own 

they encounter. Networked publics are here to stay. Rather than 
resisting technology or fearing what might happen if youth embrace 
social media, adults should help youth develop the skills and perspec- 
tive to productively navigate the complications brought about by liv- 
ing in networked publics. Collaboratively, adults and youth can help 
create a networked world that we all want to live in. 

searching for a public of their own 21 3 

appendix: teen demographics 

This appendix provides basic demographic information, interview dates, and 
social network site use of the teens who are addressed by name or pseudonym 
in the book. The teens listed here do not represent all 166 teens that I inter- 
viewed, nor do they represent all of the teens that I observed. This list is by no 
means comprehensive but should provide basic information to supplement 
what is presented in the text. 

The information provided about each teen is based on what I know. To pro- 
tect the confidentiality of teens, I provide only general geographic information. 
When teens live in or near one of the fifty most populous cities in the United 
States, I use the city name; otherwise, I use the state name. As much as possible, 
I use the language that teens used to describe their race, ethnicity, and/or reli- 
gion. When demographic or cultural information is left unmarked, it's because 
I did not know and did not dare to guess. Socioeconomic status is left unmarked 
due to difficulty in consistently marking class across teens. I did not explicitly 
ask about sexuality, and so that, too, is left unmarked. 

Interview date(s) and the dates of comments are given, as are the site(s) that 
each teen was using at the time of our encounter. Interviews that were con- 
ducted by my collaborator, Alice Marwick, are marked as such. 

Aaron (15, Texas): white, male, ninth grade, Christian 

Interview: March 14, 2007. Active on MySpace without parents' 

Abigail (17, North Carolina): white, female, twelfth grade, Christian 
Interview: October 13, 2010. Active on Facebook; formerly used 

Alicia (17, North Carolina): white, female, twelfth grade, Christian 
Interview: October 10, 2010. Active on Facebook and Twitter; formerly 
used MySpace. 

Allie (17, Indiana): white, female, twelfth grade, Christian 
MySpace comments: December 7, 2007. Active on MySpace. 


Amy (16, Seattle): biracial black/white, female, tenth grade 
Interview: January 20, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Ana-Garcia (15, Los Angeles): biracial Guatemalan/Pakistani, female, 
tenth grade, Muslim 

Interview: March 5, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Anastasia (17, New York) : female, twelfth grade 

Comments via blog: August 11, 2007. Active primarily on Facebook, 
but also uses MySpace. 

Andrew (17, Nashville): white, male, twelfth grade, Christian 

Interview (by Alice): September 30, 2010. Active on 4chan; formerly 
used Facebook and Twitter. 

Anindita (17, Los Angeles): Indian, female, twelfth grade 

Interview: February 20, 2007. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

Ashley (14, North Carolina): white, female, ninth grade, 

Interview (by Alice): October 13, 2010. Active on Facebook. 

Bianca (16, Michigan): white, female, tenth grade 
Interview: June 26, 2007. Active on Facebook. 

Bly Lauritano-Werner (17, Maine): white, female, twelfth grade 
Youth Radio Story: July 24, 2006. Active on Facebook and 

Brooke (15, Nebraska): white, female, ninth grade 
Interview: April 17, 2007. Active on Facebook. 

Cachi (18, Iowa): Puerto Rican, female, twelfth grade 

Interview: April 18, 2007. Active on Facebook, MiGente, and 

Caleb (17, North Carolina): African American, male, twelfth grade, 

Interview (by Alice): October 12, 2010. Active on Facebook and 
Twitter; formerly used MySpace. 

Carmen (17/18, Boston): Hispanic/Argentinean, female, twelfth grade, 

Interview: July 21, 2010. Focus group: August 17, 2011. Active on 
Facebook and 4chan; formerly used Twitter and MySpace. 

Catalina (15, Austin): white, female, tenth grade 

Interview: March 14, 2007. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

216 appendix 

Chantelle (15, Washington, DC): African American, female, tenth grade, 

Interview: November 6, 2010. Active on Facebook; formerly used 

Chloe (15, Atlanta): white, female, ninth grade, Christian 
Interview: May 9, 2009. Active on Facebook. 

Christopher (15, Alabama): white, male, between ninth and tenth grade, 

Interview: June 27, 2007. Not active on social network sites due to lack 
of interest. 

Corinne (13, Massachusetts): female 
Focus Group: November 15, 2007. 

Craig Pelletier (17, California): male, twelfth grade 

Blog: February 10, 2008. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

Dominic (16, Seattle): white, male, tenth grade 

Interview: January 21, 2007. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

Emily (16, Pennsylvania): white, female, tenth grade 
Interview: May 5, 2007. Active on Xanga. 

Fred (15, Texas): white, male, ninth grade 

Interview: March 14, 2007. Not active on social network sites due to 
parental restrictions. 

Heather (16, Iowa): white, female, tenth grade 

Interview: April 21, 2007. Active on Facebook, MySpace, and Xanga. 

Hunter (14, Washington, DC): African American, male, ninth grade 
Interview: November 8, 2010. Active on Facebook. 

James (17, Seattle): white with Native American roots, male, eleventh 

Interview: January 20, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Jenna (17, North Carolina): white, female, twelfth grade, Christian 
Interview: October 13, 2010. Active on Facebook; formerly used 

Jordan (15, Austin): biracial (Mexican and white), female, tenth grade, 

Interview: March 14, 2007. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

Kat (15, Massachusetts): white, female, ninth grade 

Interview: June 20, 2007. Active on Facebook; formerly used MySpace. 

appendix 217 

Kath (17, Maryland): white, female, twelfth grade 

Conversation in Colorado: July 2008. Active on Facebook. 

Keke (16, Los Angeles) : black, female, eleventh grade 
Interview: January 12, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Lila (18, Michigan): Asian/Vietnamese, female, between twelfth grade 
and college 

Interview: June 27, 2007. Active on Facebook. 

Lilly (16, Kansas): white, female, tenth grade 

Interview: April 16, 2007. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

Lolo (15, Los Angeles): Latina/Guatemalan, female, tenth grade 

Interview: January 23, 2007. Not active on social network sites due to 
pressure from ex-boyfriend. 

Manu (17, North Carolina): Indian, male, twelfth grade, Hindu 
Interview: October 12, 2010. Active on Facebook and Twitter. 

Matthew (17, North Carolina): white, male, twelfth grade, 

Interview: October 10, 2010. Active on Facebook and Twitter; formerly 
used MySpace. 

Melanie (15, Kansas): white, female, tenth grade 

Interview: April 16, 2007. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

Mic (15, Los Angeles): Egyptian, male, tenth grade, Muslim 

Interview: January 22, 2007. Not active on social network sites due to 
parental restrictions. 

Mickey (15, Los Angeles): Mexican, male, tenth grade 
Interview: January 12, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Mikalah (18, Washington, DC): black, female, eleventh grade 
Interview (by Alice): November 7, 2010. Active on MySpace and 

Mike (15, California): white, male, ninth grade 
Conversation: May 2006. Active on Facebook. 

Myra (15, Iowa): white, female, ninth grade, Christian 

Interview: April 22, 2007. Not active on social network sites due to 
parental restrictions. 

Natalie (15, Seattle): white, female, ninth grade, Christian 
Interview: January 20, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

218 appendix 

Nicholas (16, Kansas): white, male, tenth grade 

Interview: April 14, 2007. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

Sabrina (14, Texas): white, female, ninth grade 
Interview: March 15, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Samantha (18, Seattle): white, female, twelfth grade, Christian 
Interview: January 20, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Sasha (16, Michigan): white, female, tenth grade 

Interview: June 26, 2007. Not active on social network sites due to 
parental restrictions. 

Seong (17, Los Angeles): Asian/Korean, female, eleventh grade 

Interview: February 20, 2007. Active on Facebook, MySpace, Cyworld, 
and Xanga. 

Serena (16, North Carolina): white, female, eleventh grade, Christian/ 

Interview: October 14, 2010. Active on Facebook and Twitter; formerly 
used MySpace. 

Shamika (17, Washington, DC): African American, female, eleventh 
grade, Christian 

Interview: November 7, 2010. Active on Facebook and Twitter; formerly 
used MySpace and Tumblr. 

Skyler (18, Colorado): white, female, twelfth grade 
Blog post: March 16, 2006. Active on MySpace. 

Stan (18, Iowa): white, male, twelfth grade 
Interview: April 18, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Summer (15, Michigan): white, female, between ninth and tenth grade, 

Interview: June 27, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

Sydnia (15, Washington, DC): tenth grade, black, female 

Interview: September 26, 2010. Active on MySpace, Facebook, and 

Tara (16, Michigan): Asian/ Vietnamese, female, between ninth and tenth 

Interview: June 27, 2007. Active on Facebook and MySpace. 

Taylor (15, Boston): white, female, tenth grade 

Interview 1: July 26, 2010. Additional conversations: spring 2012. Active 
on Facebook. 

appendix 219 

Traviesa (15, Los Angeles): Hispanic, female, ninth grade 
Interview: December 5, 2006. Active on MySpace. 

Trevor (17, North Carolina): white, male, twelfth grade, Christian 
Interview: October 9, 2010. Active on Facebook. 

Vicki (15, Atlanta): white, female, ninth grade/homeschooled, Catholic 
Interview: May 9, 2009. Active on MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. 

Waffles (17, North Carolina): white, male, twelfth grade, Christian 
Interview: October 9, 2010. Active on Facebook. 

Wolf (18, Iowa): white, male, twelfth grade 
Interview: April 18, 2007. Active on MySpace. 

220 appendix 



1 . Most names used in this book ate pseudonyms. Some pseudonyms ate 
chosen by teens themselves; I chose othet pseudonyms to be unique names that 
maintained cultutal and tempotal identifiets by using baby name websites that 
took into account bifth yeat and ethnicity. When I'm quoting ftom public 
matetial, including blog posts and news media intetviews, I use the name pro- 
vided by the teen in that context. The names teens use online may not be theit 
legal names, but I did not seek to vetify eithei way. 

2. The intetviews and fieldwotk conducted ftom 2010-2011 wete done in 
collabotation with Alice Matwick. Most of these focused on ptivacy and bully- 
ing. I identify the intetviews conducted by Alice both in the Appendix and 
within the text. To leam mote about the teens that wete interviewed for this 
book and the methodological approach that infotms this book, see http:// 


1 . Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, and Pufcell, "Teens and Mobile Phones." 

2. This book draws on data collected in the United States and refers to cul- 
tutal references that ate particulat to Ametican culture. Although many of my 
arguments have resonance outside the United States, I make no attempt to 
speak to the cultural practices, norms, or attitudes rooted in other countries. 
Many scholars have examined young people's mediated ptactices in other cul- 
tutal contexts, including Livingstone, Children and the Internet; Mesch and 
Talmud, Wired Youth; and Davies and Eynon, Teenagers and Technology. In 
addition, as the ditectors of the EU Kids Online Project, Sonia Livingstone and 
Leslie Haddon have created a large network of researchers in Eutope to exam- 
ine children's online ptactices. They have produced numetous reports, journal 
articles, and scholatly manuscripts. To learn more, see 

3. To read more about how social media is situated within Web2.o in light 
of the rise of social network sites, see Ellison and boyd, "Sociality Through 
Social Netwotk Sites." In this atticle, we atgue that what makes "social media" 


significant as a category is not the various technologies labeled as social media 
but, rather, the sociotechnical dynamics that unfold as millions of people 
embrace a variety of technologies available at a particular time and use them to 
collaborate, share, and socialize. 

4. In the introduction to Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, 
Mimi Ito and colleagues (including myself) describe an important tension in 
online interactions between those that are "interest-driven" and those that are 
"friendship-driven." Although we use this construct to help describe different 
youth practices, the same dynamic is at play in terms of how broader media 
have been adopted. Services like Facebook are primarily friendship-driven 
while the boards on 4chan are primarily interest-driven. Of course, some major 
social media services — like Livejournal and Tumblr — have been adopted for 
both in ways that often create unique tensions within those sites. 

5. Mimi Ito initially used the term networked publics in 2008 to "reference a 
linked set of social, cultural, and technological developments that have accom- 
panied the growing engagement with digitally networked media" (Ito, "Intro- 
duction," 2). Although I agree with her framing and believe that the broadness 
of what she offers has tremendous value, I am trying to add more precision in 
my usage. To do so, I draw on a broader notion of publics. In employing the 
concept of "publics," I am purposefully referring to a long strain of scholarly 
debate and analysis. Much of what I'm nodding toward is rooted in, conversa- 
tional with, or challenging of Jiirgen Habermas's historical analysis of a public 
sphere as a category of bourgeois society in Structural Transformation of the 
Public Sphere (see also Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere). In particu- 
lar, I subscribe to Nancy Fraser's argument in "Rethinking the Public Sphere" 
that publics are where identities are enacted, Michael Warner's argument in 
Publics and Counterpublics that counterpublics enable marginalized individuals 
to create powerful communities in resistance to hegemonic publics, and Sonia 
Livingstone's recognition in Audiences and Publics that publics emerge when 
audiences come together around shared understandings of the world. To better 
understand the academic roots of how I understand networked publics, see 
boyd, "Social Network Sites as Networked Publics." 

6. B. Anderson, Imagined Communities. 

7. The notion of an affordance was popularized by Donald Norman in his 
book The Design of Everyday Things; he used this term to highlight interaction 
possibilities that were made possible through specific design decisions. While 
this term has purchase in the field of human-computer interaction, it is regu- 
larly critiqued in critical disciplines because it is often used to give agency to the 
technological artifact without acknowledging the role of the user (see Oliver, 
"Problem with Affordance"). Although I am aware of the fraught history of 
this term, it is still a useful construct for addressing the design features with 
which people must contend. 

222 notes to pages 7-1 

8 . For a discussion on how visibility brought about by new technologies changes 
the nature of our social and political worlds, see Thompson, "New Visibility." 

9. In their 2013 book Spreadable Media, Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Josh 
Green discuss how new technologies can be used by people interested in spread- 
ing online content. They argue that this alters the dynamics of media distri- 

10. Coffin, "Consumption, and Images of Women's Desires." 

1 1 . Hosokawa, "Walkman Effect." 

12. Springhall, Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics. 

13. In Phaedrus, Plato quotes Socrates as paraphrasing an Egyptian god. 
The relevant excerpts critiquing writing as a medium can be found at: http:// 

14. More than a decade before I wrote this book, British media studies 
scholar David Buckingham wrote After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in 
the Age of Electronic Media to examine the fears and anxieties that adults had 
about the effects of media on young people. Many of the issues that he raised in 
the early days of youth engagement with the internet continue to plague popular 
discussions about technology and are at the center of the arguments made in this 
book at a time when new technologies are rehashing old arguments. 

1 5. Science and technology scholars have written extensively about the prob- 
lems with technological determinism. Langdon Winner makes the case in "Do 
Artifacts Have Politics?" In the past three decades, much scholarship has 
focused on how to think about the role of technology in relation to practice. 
One strain of thinking is referred to as "social constructivism." For a literature 
review of this approach, see Leonardi, Car Crashes Without Cars, chap. 2. 

16. To learn more about how various societal anxieties shape teens' lives, see 
Levine, Price of Privilege; and Pope, Doing School. 

17. For a discussion of how youth build friendships and turn to peers to cre- 
ate a social world that's not just defined by parents, see Bukowski, Newcomb, 
and Hartup, The Company They Keep; Corsaro, Friendship and Peer Culture in 
the Early Years; Pahl, On Friendship. 

18. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes how changes in soci- 
etal norms and the rise of fear have resulted in children being disconnected from 
nature. His argument is that we must help children get access to nature in order 
for them to be healthy socially and physically. Although this resonates with me, 
I've found that teens are primarily using technology as a substitute, often because 
nature and unregulated space are so challenging for youth. 

19. Lewis, "Community Through Exclusion and Illusion." 

20. For a historical overview of teens' engagement with and adults' attitudes 
toward publics, see Valentine, Public Space and the Culture of Childhood. 

21. Hargittai, "Digital Na(t)ives?" 

notes to pages 12-22 223 

22. Laura Portwood-Stacer examines media refusal and intentional disengage- 
ment from social media in "Media Refusal and Conspicuous Non-Consumption." 

23. Ethnography is a qualitative research methodology used by social scien- 
tists to understand and document cultural practices. Born out of anthropology — 
and embraced by many other disciplines — ethnographic work seeks to capture 
and explain the social meaning behind everyday activities. I do not detail my 
methodological practices in this book, but for those who are interested in my 
methods, see boyd, "Making Sense of Teen Life." More details are also available 
on my website at For those who want to 
learn more about doing ethnographic work with youth, see Best, Representing 

24. Throughout this book, I use the term American when talking about 
cultural practices, values, peoples, and norms that are rooted in the United 
States. I recognize that this is contested and that some scholars prefer to reserve 
the term American for talking about contexts related to the Americas — includ- 
ing countries in North and South America. I choose to use American in the 
more narrow sense both because it is the language that my informants use and 
because there is no notion of United States-ian. When I refer to cultural prac- 
tices from other countries in the Americas, I use such descriptors as Canadian, 
Mexican, and Argentinean. 

Chapter 1. Identity 

1 . Paul Willis examined the underlying social dynamics of UK class mobil- 
ity in Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. These 
ideas were extended and reconsidered in light of an American context by Donna 
Gaines in Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids. 

2. Rebecca Raby refers to "the great gulf" between adults and adolescents as 
one of the challenges in truly understanding youth and youth cultural practice. 
Raby, "Across a Great Gulf? " 

3. Marginalized youth are especially vulnerable to being misinterpreted and 
judged by adults who have no frame for understanding the context in which these 
teens operate. For example, in her book Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and 
Queer Visibility in Rural America, Mary Gray argues that queer, rural teens need 
to resolve different conflicted identities when they're both queer and rural. Often, 
adults who don't experience both of these identities expect teens to focus on one. 
Rural straight adults believe that sexuality should go unmarked and undiscussed 
while queer urban adults believe that these youth simply need to leave their rural 
lives behind. Gray finds that many youth develop innovative ways of resolving 
conflicted audiences and norms, in spite of adults' assumptions. 

4. For a detailed discussion of how context collapse works in networked 
publics, see Marwick and boyd, "I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately"; 

224 notes to pages 26-31 

and Vitak, "Impact of Context Collapse and Privacy on Social Network Site 

5. For a deeper analysis on how "imagined audience" functions in social 
media, see Marwick and boyd, "I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately"; Litt, 
"Knock, Knock. Who's There?"; Brake, "Shaping the 'Me' in MySpace"; and 
Baron, "My Best Day." 

6. Over the course of this study, Facebook's privacy settings have changed 
tremendously. This has complicated teens' understanding of how to navigate 
contexts on Facebook and in social media more generally. For a discussion of 
how Facebook's privacy settings have changed, see Stutzman, Gross, and 
Acquisti, "Silent Listeners." 

7. Kirschbaum and Kass, "The Switch." 

8. Turkle, Second Self. 

9. Sunden, Material Virtualities. 

10. Although identity play was commonplace in early online communities, 
it was not without consequences. The issues of how deception played out dur- 
ing that period are well documented in Stone, War of Desire and Technology; 
and Dibbell, My Tiny Life. 

1 1 . The dynamics around "real names" and pseudonyms in social media are 
fraught. Many services, including Facebook and Google Plus, have demanded 
that users provide their "real name." Other services invite or welcome pseu- 
donyms. For a discussion of the politics of real names in social media, see 
Hogan, "Pseudonyms and the Rise of the Real-Name Web." 

12. In Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Mimi Ito and coau- 
thors (including myself) describe how mediated youth engagement can be 
understood through a cleavage between friendship-driven practices and those 
that are interest-driven. Although many youth move between friendship-driven 
and interest-driven worlds, they often interact with particular genres of media 
with specific intentions that are organized around one or the other of these 
approaches. I saw this division throughout my fieldwork. 

13. As I mentioned briefly in the Introduction, I approach the study of tech- 
nology's relation to social practices with a sociotechnical bent, drawing on a 
broad set of scholarly theories focused on how technology is socially con- 
structed. These theories are often responding to a problematic but pervasive 
notion that technologies determine practices (a.k.a. "technological determin- 
ism"). My analytic approach is heavily influenced by a wide variety of social 
constructivists, especially the work of Weibe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and 
Trevor Pinch. For those who wish to learn more about this analytic approach, 
see Leonardi, Car Crashes Without Cars, chap. 2. 

14. To learn more about how identity works in game settings and virtual 
worlds, see Taylor, Play Between Worlds; Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second 

notes to pages 31-41 225 

Life; Nardi, My Life as a Night Elf Priest; and Kendall, Hanging Out in the 
Virtual Pub. 

1 5. Beth Coleman takes up the issue of avatars blurring distinctions between 
the virtual and the real in Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation. 

16. For a journalist's account of 4chan, see Brophy-Warren, "Modest Web 
Site Is Behind a Bevy of Memes." For more on 4chan as a site of ephemerality 
and anonymous community practices, see Bernstein et al., "4chan and Ihl"; 
and Knuttila, "User Unknown." 

17. For an analysis of the linguistic and cultural practices underpinning 
lolcats, see Lefler, "I Can Has Thesis?"; and Miltner, "Srsly Phenomenal." 

18. For a more in-depth look at Anonymous, see Coleman, "Our Weirdness 
Is Free"; and Stryker, "Epic Win for Anonymous." 

1 9. In her work on trolls, Whitney Phillips details how participants are social- 
ized into underground anonymous communities through shared language, 
practices, and in-jokes. See Phillips, "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." 

20. The number 69 is often used in teen circles as a crass reference to simul- 
taneous oral sex between two partners. 

21 . Judith Donath's work on the intersection of identity and deception in online 
spaces highlights that what appears as deceptive to the viewer may have more stra- 
tegic signaling purposes. Some signals — such as the demographic information 
required of major social media sites — are easy to fake. Others, such as photographs 
with friends, are harder. To learn more, see Donath, "Identity and Deception in 
the Virtual Community"; and Donath, "Signals in Social Supernets." 

22. The first social network sites — including Ryze, Friendster, andMySpace — 
were designed for networking purposes. (For a history of social network sites, see 
boyd and Ellison, "Social Network Sites.") As such, these sites' features were cre- 
ated to help users accurately convey who they were to strangers. Users were 
expected to provide accurate information about their gender, location, tastes, 
birthday, relationship status, employment, income, etc., so that the site could 
help them find a date, make a friend, or build a professional relationship. It didn't 
take long for users to challenge this design intention in an effort to repurpose 
these sites. When Friendster's users started creating "fake" accounts, the com- 
pany responded with outrage, shutting down "Fakester" accounts and demand- 
ing that users use the site as it was intended. The practice of "configuring" users 
often results in backlash. (For a more detailed discussion of how this dynamic 
played out on Friendster, see boyd, "None of This Is Real.") This outraged many 
early adopters, prompted a mass exodus to other social network sites, including 
MySpace. Unlike Friendster, MySpace welcomed users to fill out the identity 
information as they saw fit. In response, many who embraced MySpace — and 
especially teenagers — had a field day with their profiles. 

23. In the 1970s, cultural theorists Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber 
described the practice of using media to create personal space as "bedroom 

226 notes to pages 42-47 

culture." Hodkinson and Lincoln are building off of that notion. Hodkinson 
and Lincoln, "Online Journals as Virtual Bedrooms?"; McRobbie and Garber, 
"Girls and Subcultures." 

24. In Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the 
Culture of Consumption, Murray Milner Jr. discusses the challenges that young 
people face as they try to navigate status games among their peers. 

25. Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 82. 

26. Joe Walther et al. discuss how people's practices on social media affect 
their contacts' impression management processes in "The Role of Friends' 
Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals' Facebook Profiles." 

27. Kirkpatrick, Facebook Effect, 199. 

28. One perspective of the incident can be found in: Misur, "Old Saybrook 
High School Makes Privacy Point." 

29. Johnston, OMalley, Bachman, and Schulenberg, Monitoring the 

30. Teens who are navigating queer identities are often especially aware of 
the challenges involved in managing different social contexts. Many, but not 
all, struggle with what it means to be out online while choosing not to expose 
their sexuality within their physical community. These teens are often framed 
as being "closeted," but some are simply trying to figure out how to negotiate 
conflicting identities. In Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility 
in Rural America, Mary Gray shows how teens use a variety of strategies to 
address seemingly unresolvable identities of queerness and rurality. 

Chapter 2. Privacy 

1 . Although my data focuses exclusively on American youth, British teens 
have an almost identical perspective regarding social media and privacy. See 
Livingstone, "Taking Risky Opportunities in Youthful Content Creation." 

2. For example, Kang, "With Quick Click, Teens Part with Online Privacy." 

3. Nussbaum, "Say Everything." 

4. Studies show that many youth are quite thoughtful about privacy issues. 
See, e.g., boyd and Hargittai, "Facebook Privacy Settings"; Hoofnagle, King, 
Li, and Turow, "How Different Are Young Adults from Older Adults?"; and 
Stutzman, Gross, and Acquisti, "Silent Listeners." This does not mean that they 
don't share online. Pew's research on teens and privacy reveals how teens navigate 
both sharing and privacy. See Madden et al., "Teens, Social Media, and Privacy." 

5. Kirkpatrick, "Facebook's Zuckerberg Says the Age of Privacy Is Over"; 
Popkin, "Privacy Is Dead on Facebook"; Johnson, "Privacy No Longer a Social 
Norm"; Jenkins Jr., "Opinion: Google and the Search for the Future"; Smith, 
"Google CEO Eric Schmidt's Most Controversial Quotes About Privacy." 

6. Leysia Palen and Paul Dourish argue that, contrary to the traditional 
model of privacy as social withdrawal, privacy (particularly in a networked 

notes to pages 48-57 227 

world) is actually the result of many concurrent tensions at work. Palen and 
Dourish, "Unpacking Privacy for a Networked World." 

7. Lauritano-Werner, "Effort to Keep an Online Diary Private." 

8 . Goffman, Relations in Public. 

9. The dominance of "civil inattention" is so entrenched that multiple 
mobile phone etiquette studies mention "forced eavesdropping," or being unable 
to escape others' ostensibly private conversations as a major inconvenience. 
See Ling, "Mobile Telephones and the Disturbance of the Public Sphere"; and 
Lipscomb, Totten, Cook, and Lesch, "Cellular Phone Etiquette Among College 

10. In reviewing the legal issues surrounding privacy on Facebook, James 
Grimmelmann describes a variety of reasons that people seek out privacy while 
using social media. Grimmelmann, "Saving Facebook." 

1 1 . The definitions of privacy are numerous. Helen Nissenbaum describes 
multiple definitions of privacy and groups them based on whether they are 
normative or descriptive; emphasize access vs. control; or emphasize promoting 
other values vs. protecting a private realm. Nissenbaum, Privacy in Context. 
From a different direction, Anita Allen defines three types of privacy: physical 
privacy, informational privacy, and proprietary. Allen, "Coercing Privacy." 

12. Gavison, "Privacy and the Limits of the Law." 

13. Westin, Privacy and Freedom, 7. 

14. Solove, Understanding Privacy. 

15. Nissenbaum, Privacy in Context. 

16. Although teens may not functionally have agency or social power in rela- 
tion to their parents, they certainly try valiantly to circumvent surveillance by 
authority figures. For a review of some techniques teens use, see Marwick, 
Diaz, and Palfrey, "Youth, Privacy and Reputation." 

17. For the larger cultural impact of celebrity scandals on privacy norms, see 
Thompson, "Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life." 

18. Natalya N. Bazarova argues that the seemingly mundane messages that 
are the stock and trade of social media interaction are actually essential for 
relational maintenance within these media. Bazarova, "Public Intimacy." 

19. Petitcolas, Anderson, and Kuhn, "Information Hiding"; R. Anderson, 
"History of Steganography." 

20. Nathan Jurgenson and P. J. Rey refer to this practice as the "fan dance" 
of status updates. Jurgenson and Rey, "Comment on Sarah Ford's 'Reconcep- 
tualization of Privacy and Publicity.' " 

21 . The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 58 percent of teens 
cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with 
older teens (62 percent) engaging in this practice more often than younger teens 
(46 percent). See Madden et al., "Teens, Social Media, and Privacy." 

22. Holson, "Text Generation Gap." 

228 notes to pages 57-70 

23. For a discussion of different privacy practices to manage privacy and 
publicness, see Lampinen, "Practices of Balancing Privacy and Publicness in 
Social Network Services." 

24. Privacy is, in many ways, a socioeconomic issue. When the state provides 
social services, intensive scrutiny and surveillance are often normative. Teens 
who grow up in households in which parents receive welfare or in which child 
services are involved are accustomed to invasions of privacy. For a discussion of 
the socioeconomic issues of privacy, see Gilman, "Class Differential in Privacy 
Law." Likewise, data suggests that black youth take many more measures to 
obscure their identity and provide fake online information. See Madden et al., 
"Teens, Social Media, and Privacy." 

25. To read more about how different intensive parenting styles intersect 
with technology, see Nelson, Parenting Out of Control; and Clark, Parent App. 

26. Bernstein and Triger, "Over-Parenting." 

27. See Haddon, "Phone in the Home." 

28. Heather Armstrong quoted in Rosenberg, Say Everything, 265. 

29. For a full deconstruction of the "nothing to hide" argument, see Solove, 
" 'I've Got Nothing to Hide.' " 

30. Political dissidents, in particular, have long used strategies to hide in pub- 
lic. This is exemplified in contemporary China, where government censors 
restrict the kinds of speech people can use and the topics they can discuss. 
Because of the nature of the Chinese language, citizens often use words that 
sound similar to their intended word as a way of routing around the censors. For 
example, the Chinese word for "river crab" sounds a lot like the word for "har- 
mony" or "harmonize," which refers to the government's policy of getting activ- 
ists to conform. Images are often used instead of text to make it harder for censors 
to understand what is happening algorithmically. These are just two of the tactics 
Chinese activists use to counter attempts to control them. An Xiao Mina, an 
American artist of Chinese descent, has blogged about these practices in "A 
Curated History of the Grass Mud Horse Song" and "Social Media Street Art." 

Chapter 3. Addiction 

1 . Hafner, "To Deal with Obsession, Some Defriend Facebook." 

2. In 2013, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that two- 
thirds of American adults have taken a break from Facebook — or a "Facebook 
vacation" — because they didn't have time, were bored with the site, found the 
content unappealing, or grew tired of the gossip and drama. Notably, 8 percent 
of adults surveyed suggested that they were previously spending too much time 
on the site and needed to take a break. See Rainie, Smith, and Duggan, "Com- 
ing and Going on Facebook." Although it's not clear how common this is 
among teenagers, many of the teens that I met have similar concerns. Similarly, 
in her work on media refusal, Laura Portwood-Stacer found that many people 

notes to pages 70-77 229 

intentionally opt-out of social media. Often, those who decide to quit employ 
addiction as their frame for describing their decision. See Portwood-Stacer, 
"Media Refusal and Conspicuous Non-Consumption." 

3. C. Stewart, "Obsessed with the Internet"; Fackler, "In Korea, a Boot 
Camp Cure for Web Obsession." 

4. Some psychologists and communication scholars have addressed the issue of 
TV addiction through the lens of "media effects." This subdiscipline is fraught. 
For a review on the history of moral panics related to media effects research, see 
Livingstone, "On the Continuing Problems of Media Effects Research." 

5. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow. 

6. For an account of how gambling machines are designed to enhance flow, 
see Schiill, Addiction by Design. For a discussion of how video games leverage 
the state of flow, see Cowley, Charles, Black, and Hickey, "Toward an Under- 
standing of Flow in Video Games." For a discussion of the connection between 
flow and addiction, see Chou and Ting, "Role of Flow Experience in Cyber- 
Game Addiction." 

7. Early in my fieldwork, I asked teenagers whether they ever used a com- 
puter that wasn't connected to the internet. One girl furrowed her brow and 
asked me what would be the point of such a device. A teen boy explained that 
his home computer collected dust when his mother forgot to pay the internet 
bill. The public rhetoric suggests that the problem is the technological artifact, 
but many teens make it very clear that they have no particular interest in the 
physical device. They're only interested in the opportunities to be social. 

8. For an early reference to "addicted to the bottle," see Pittis, Dr. Radcliffe's 
Life and Letters, 31. 

9. Zieger, "Terms to Describe Addiction in the Nineteenth Century." 

10. Quoted in Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "addiction." 

1 1 . World Health Organization, Expert Committee on Drugs Liable to Pro- 
duce Addiction, Report on the Second Session, Geneva, 9—14 January 1950. http:// 

12. Federwisch, "Internet Addiction?" Like Goldman, the American Medi- 
cal Association (AMA) is often hesitant to label new compulsions as addictions. 
In 2007, the AMA declined to label "video game addiction" as a disorder even 
though many rallied for it to be declared one. Psych Central News Editor, 
"Video Games No Addiction for Now." 

13. For example, Jerald J. Block's editorial for the American Journal of Psy- 
chiatry, titled "Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction," cites a variety of studies, 
primarily in South Korea. 

14. The American Library Association maintains a list of books most fre- 
quently challenged or banned by schools. In the 1990s, Go Ask Alice was listed 
as number 25 on the list of top 100 books to be banned. American Library 
Association, "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999." 

230 notes to pages 78-82 

15. Gross, "Dad Pays Daughter $200 to Quit Facebook." 

16. Llorens, "Tommy Jordan, Dad Who Shot Daughter's Laptop, Says He'd 
Do It Again"; Jordan, "Facebook Parenting." 

17. For an analysis of how physical mobility has changed over multiple gen- 
erations, see Bird, Natural Thinking. For a deeper discussion on the decline of 
children's access to public spaces and nature, see Valentine, Public Space and the 
Culture of Childhood; and Louv, Last Child in the Woods. 

18. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime against youth 
declined 77 percent from 1994 to 2010. 

19. For a scholarly discussion of how children have lost access to public 
spaces, see Valentine, Public Space and the Culture of Childhood. For a more 
popular discussion, see Skenazy, Free-Range Kids. 

20. Ruefle and Reynolds, "Curfew and Delinquency in Major American 

21. Lyall, "What's the Buzz?" 

22. National Center for Safe Routes to School, "How Children Get to 

23. Mahoney, Larson, and Eccles, Organized Activities as Contexts of 

2A. Pinker, "Mind over Mass Media." 

25. Hall, Adolescence. 

26. For an overview on the Progressive Era, see Pestritto and Atto, American 

27. For an account of how teenagers were shaped by the various shifts in 
American policies resulting from Hall's work and adjacent movements, see 
Hine, Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. 

28. For an exploration of how the boundaries of various life stages are 
socially and normatively constructed, see Crawford, Adult Themes. 

29. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000) is a popular scholarly articula- 
tion of the fear that American society has become disconnected. In response, 
Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo (2012) highlights how shifts in household configu- 
ration and the rise in people choosing to live alone isn't simply a rejection of 
sociality, but a byproduct of increasingly social work spaces. 

Chapter 4. Danger 

1. For examples of media coverage of online predators, see Williams, 
"MySpace, Facebook Attract Online Predators"; and Poulsen, "MySpace Pred- 
ator Caught by Code." 

2. In the 1990s, before internet usage was mainstream among youth, there 
was considerable news coverage about the dangers of online sexual predators. 
See, e.g., Elmer-DeWitt, "Online Erotica." 

notes to pages 85-1 01 

3. In The Culture of Fear, sociologist Barry Glassner provides a detailed 
account of how American society uses fear to regulate everyday practices. He 
points out that people are terrible at assessing risk; many fears are connected, 
not to risk, but to how the media shapes the public's perception of key issues. 
Eszter Hargittai and I examine the pervasiveness of parental concerns and fears 
regarding online safety issues in "Connected and Concerned." 

4. Some early news reports about the dangers of the internet for youth 
include: Rovner, "Molesting Children by Computer"; Wetzstein, "Anti-Porn 
Group Targets On-Line Activities"; and Lennox, "E.mail." 

5. One account of how sexual curiosity led to compulsive participation in 
cybersex is detailed in Kelleher, "With Teens and Internet Sex, Curiosity Can 
Become Compulsion." 

6. Valentine, Public Space and the Culture of Childhood. 

7. Jahn, "National Youth Rights Association — Analysis of U.S. Curfew 
Laws"; Favro, "City Mayors." 

8. Males and Macallair, "Analysis of Curfew Enforcement and Juvenile 
Crimes in California." 

9. Quoted in Valentine, Public Space and the Culture of Childhood, 91. 

10. Ibid., 27. 

1 1 . Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics. For further information on moral 
panics, see Goode and Ben-Yehuda, Moral Panics; and Springhall, Youth, Popu- 
lar Culture and Moral Panics. 

12. Jack, Woman Reader. 

13. For an in-depth exploration on the moral panic surrounding comic 
books (including the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delin- 
quency), see Hadju, Ten-Cent Plague. 

14. John Springhall details the intersection of teens' media practices and 
moral panics in Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics. 

15. Finkelhor, "Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of 'Juvenoia.' " 

16. For a discussion of the moral panics surrounding girls' online practices, 
see Cassell and Cramer, "High Tech or High Risk." 

17. For an analysis of the MySpace moral panic, see Marwick, "To Catch a 

18. Amy Adler critiques the show and presents a more detailed overview of 
its role in American society in "To Catch a Predator." 

19. Henry Jenkins and I wrote a critique of the Deleting Online Predators 
Act on May 26, 2006, for MIT Talk Tech: 

20. In 2007, the attorneys general commissioned an Internet Safety Techni- 
cal Task Force that was codirected by John Palfrey, Dena Sacco, and myself. As 
part of that task force, we were asked to consider technical solutions — including 
age verification technologies — to combat sexual predators. We chose to analyze 

232 notes to pages 102-106 

existing research and technical interventions and came to the conclusion that 
age verification would not actually help children who are sexually exploited 
because the media-driven image of the sexual predator was misleading. Our 
final report, "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies," can be found 
online at: 

21 . Lessig, Code. 

22. In her study of girls' websites, Susannah Stern described a category of 
"self-conscious site authors" who are aware of (and concerned about) the fact 
that any information they put online could be used to harm them. Stern, 
"Expression on Web Home Pages." 

23. boyd and Hargittai, "Connected and Concerned." 

24. The dynamics of "anxious parenting" are analyzed in Nelson, Parenting 
Out of Control; Stearns, Anxious Parents; and Furedi, Paranoid Parenting. 

25. See Hammel-Zabin, Conversations with a Pedophile. 

26. For an analysis of how legal policy builds on anxious parenting, see 
Bernstein and Triger, "Over-Parenting." 

27. Snyder and Sickmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National 
Report; Mitchell, Finkelhor, and Wolak, "Internet and Family and Acquain- 
tance Sexual Abuse"; Finkelhor and Ormrod, "Kidnaping of Juveniles." 

28. Finkelhor and Ormrod, "Kidnaping of Juveniles." 

29. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "CyberTipline: 
Annual Report Totals"; Calpin, "Child Maltreatment"; Finkelhor and Jones, 
"Updated Trends in Child Maltreatment, 2006." 

30. According to Howard N. Snyder, Sexual Assault of Young Children as 
Reported to Law Enforcement (2000), 84 percent of sexual abuse committed 
against children under twelve and 71 percent of sexual abuse committed against 
children age twelve to seventeen are committed in a residence, either the vic- 
tim's or the perpetrator's. For other data on the trends in sexual abuse, see 
Jones, Mitchell, and Finkelhor, "Trends in Youth Internet Victimization"; and 
Shakeshaft, "Educator Sexual Misconduct." 

31. Finkelhor, Mitchell, and Wolak, "Online Victimization." 

32. Wolak, Mitchell, and Finkelhor, "Online Victimization of Youth." 

33. Ybarra, Espelage, and Mitchell, "Co-Occurrence of Internet Harassment 
and Unwanted Sexual Solicitation Victimization and Perpetration"; 
Wolak, Finkelhor, and Mitchell, "Is Talking Online to Unknown People Always 

34. Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell, and Ybarra, "Online 'Predators' and Their 
Victims"; Finkelhor, Childhood Victimization; Mitchell, Wolak, and Finkelhor, 
"Are Blogs Putting Youth at Risk?"; Ybarra and Mitchell, "Prevalence and Fre- 
quency of Internet Harassment Instigation." 

35. Mitchell, Finkelhor, and Wolak, "Internet and Family and Acquain- 
tance Sexual Abuse." 

notes to pages 106-1 13 233 

36. For an in-depth exploration of the tricky nature of adolescent sexual 
consent and the law, see Hasinoff, "Information, Consent, and Control." 

37. Erdely, "Kiki Kannibal." 

38. Sexual assault or rape among teens who are in a dating relationship 
ranges from 3 percent to 23 percent of all females and 2 percent to 4 percent of 
all males. For more information, see Bergman, "Dating Violence Among High 
School Students"; Canterbury, Grossman, and Lloyd, "Drinking Behaviors and 
Lifetime Incidence of Date Rape"; Davis, Peck, and Storment, "Acquaintance 
Rape and the High School Student"; DeKeseredy and Schwartz, "Locating a 
History of Some Canadian Women Abuse"; and Vicary, Klingaman, and 
Harkness, "Risk Factors Associated with Date Rape." 

39. Age-discrepant marriages are more frequently associated with non-US 
populations, lower socioeconomic status, lower educational levels, and certain 
religions. Although such relationships are common in certain parts of the 
world, they are often taboo in the United States. For a review of these dynam- 
ics, see Berardo, Appel, and Berardo, "Age Dissimilar Marriages." 

40. "Mothers Think Teens Were Lured Away by Suitors." 

41 . Jenkins, "Congressional Testimony on Media Violence." 

42. Gaines, Teenage Wasteland. 

43. The original video can be viewed on YouTube at 
com /watch ? v= vOHXGNx-E 7 E . 

44. Wells and Mitchell, "How Do High-Risk Youth Use the Internet?" 

45. Wolak, Finkelhor, and Mitchell, "Is Talking Online to Unknown 
People Always Risky?"; Wells and Mitchell, "How Do High-Risk Youth Use 
the Internet?" 

Chapter 5. Bullying 

1. The ideas in this chapter — and much of the data — would not have 
been possible without help from my collaborator Alice Marwick. For two years, 
we interviewed teens and worked out numerous ideas about networked youth 
culture together. The ideas about drama in this chapter are the product of deep 
collaboration. To read more about our ideas on teen conflict, see Marwick and 
boyd, "The Drama!" 

2. A literature review produced by the Harvard Berkman Center for the 
Kinder and Braver World Project found that, although the rates of bullying 
ranged tremendously depending on how one defined bullying, the bulk of 
studies suggest that anywhere from 20 percent to 35 percent of youth are bullied 
offline, a rate that is much higher than the typical online rate. Levy et al., 
"Bullying in a Networked Era." Studies that compare online and offline bully- 
ing consistently show that youth report that bullying happens more frequently 
and with greater emotional duress at school. See, e.g., Ybarra, Mitchell, and 
Espelage, "Comparisons of Bully and Unwanted Sexual Experiences." 

234 notes to pages 1 1 4-1 30 

3. One of the most publicized cases of bullying appearing to prompt teen 
suicide was that of Phoebe Pt ince, a fifteen-year-old from Massachusetts, who 
purportedly killed hetself aftet being totmented by classmates. In tesponse, 
local ptosecutots chatged six teenagets with a variety of violations, including 
statutoiy rape. Emily Bazelon investigated this case and found that the public 
narrative obfuscated the serious mental health issues that Prince was experienc- 
ing while blaming a group of teens who felt as though they were on the receiv- 
ing end of Phoebe's abuse. Her excellent documentation and analysis can be 
found in a three-part series published in Slate, "What Really Happened to 
Phoebe Prince?" She also did a deeper analysis of this case and other teen bully- 
suicides in her book, Sticks and Stones. 

4. For a review of the anti-bullying legislation that has been proposed or 
implemented, see Sacco et al., "Overview of State Anti-Bullying Legislation 
and Other Related Laws." 

5. Based on his research, Dan Olweus created the Olweus Bullying Preven- 
tion Program (OBPP), which is now used by many educators. In his scholarly 
writing, Olweus has described bullying with a variety of words, but the three 
components listed are generally associated with him and generally used by 
those implementing OBPP. 

6. Ybarra, Mitchell, and Espelage, "Comparisons of Bully and Unwanted 
Sexual Experiences." 

7. Victims of bullying may experience a wide variety of academic, emotional, 
and social problems, including lower grades, truancy, social anxiety, low self- 
esteem, suicidal thoughts /behavior, mental health issues, hostility, and delin- 
quency. Perpetrators of bullying behavior are also subject to a series of negative 
outcomes, including problems in romantic relationships, suicidal thoughts, 
mental health issues, and drug and alcohol abuse. Many perpetrators are also 
often victims in other contexts. For a broad literature review on bullying, see 
Levy et al., "Bullying in a Networked Era." For an empirically grounded analy- 
sis of how these dynamics unfold, see Espelage and Swearer, Bullying in North 
American Schools. For a scholarly overview of how technology intersects with 
other aspects of bullying, see Hinduja and Patchin, School Climate 2.0. 

8. In their review of Zero Tolerance policies, the American Psychological 
Association found that not only do highly punitive bullying policies fail to create 
a better learning environment for students but disruptive students who were 
removed from school environments as a result of these policies were often exposed 
to more risk. Skiba et al., "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?" 

9. Alice Marwick and I document our analysis in great detail in "The 

10. For an in-depth examination of how heteronormative and homophobic 
discourses construct adolescent American masculinity, see Pascoe, Dude, You're 
a Fag. 

notes to pages 130-139 235 

1 1 . Englander, "Digital Self-Harm." 

12. Milner, Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids, 25. 

13. Eckert, Jocks and Burnouts. 

14. Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. 

15. For an overview of the "Star Wars Kid," see the Wikipedia entry: http:// 

16. In Spreadable Media, Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Josh Green describe 
the productive value of spreading online content to help create meaning and 
value in a networked culture. The same practices that they describe can be used 
to reinforce cultural values and norms at the expense of individuals. 

17. The notion of celebrity refers to multiple things. In the colloquial sense, 
it refers to a famous person (e.g., Lady Gaga is a celebrity). It can also refer to a 
cultural phenomenon, as in celebrity culture. For scholars, celebrity can be 
viewed as a process by which people turn into a commodity. To learn more 
about how celebrity is theorized and conceptualized, see Turner, Understanding 
Celebrity; and David, Celebrity Culture Reader. 

18. Alice Marwick and I discuss how Twitter is used to enable the practice 
of celebrity in "To See and Be Seen." 

19. Nancy Baym discusses how musicians use technology to engage directly 
with their fans in "Fans or Friends?" 

20. In Toxic Fame, Joey Berlin interviews hundreds of celebrities about their 
experiences with fame. This collection offers a fascinating perspective on the 
struggles that celebrities face. 

21 . Terri Senft provides a valuable analysis of microcelebrity and the politics 
of celebrity in a digital world in Camgirls. 

22. Wasserman, "How Rebecca Black Became a YouTube Sensation." 

23. Rebecca Black discussed her experience with fame on Primetime Night- 
line: Celebrity Secrets in a special episode called "Underage and Famous" on 
August 10, 2011. For a written description, see Canning, "Rebecca Black." 

24. The cultivation of resilience and empathy within teens is seen as key to 
addressing everyday obstacles, including bullying. See Goldstein and Brooks, 
Handbook of Resilience in Children; Polanin, Espelage, and Pigott, "Meta-Analysis 
of School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs' Effects." 

25. Many of the best programs rely on social emotional learning (SEL) to 
help people develop the necessary skills to cope with violence, bullying, and 
other forms of conflict. SEL programs focus on helping people develop empa- 
thy and resilience to maintain healthy relationships. 

Chapter 6. Inequality 

1. The rhetoric used by the US media to suggest that social media could 
democratize the world took a more magnificent form in January 2011. As citi- 
zens throughout the Middle East began challenging authoritarian regimes, the 

236 notes to pages 141-156 

media described the uprisings of the Arab Spring as being a product of social 
media. The news media began extolling social media as being the source of the 
various Middle East revolutions. This narrative has been widely critiqued, but 
it reveals prevalent notions of how technology can do cultural work to eradicate 
inequalities and injustices. 

2. In Digitizing Race, Lisa Nakamura has pointed out that many techno- 
logical discourses, particularly those involving the digital divide, have envi- 
sioned or positioned users of color as technologically limited and/or uninvolved. 

3. Briggs and Maverick quoted in Carey, "Technology and Ideology," 160-161. 

4. For a discussion of whiteness and photography, see Dyer, "Lighting for 

5. Sinclair, "Kinect Has Problems Recognizing Dark-Skinned Users?" 

6. Zax, "Siri, Why Can't You Understand Me?" 

7. Kendall, "Meaning and Identity in 'Cyberspace' "; Kolko, Nakamura, and 
Rodman, "Race in Cyberspace." 

8. Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman, "Race in Cyberspace," 4-5. 

9. Ethan Zuckerman talks extensively about the "imaginary cosmopolitan- 
ism" and the fallacy of social media as an inherently democratizing force in 
Rewire. Although his focus is global in scope, the same issues he highlights 
internationally also play out domestically. And the challenges that he high- 
lights in describing how adults negotiate differences are also true of teenagers. 

10. Warschauer, Technology and Social Inclusion; Drori, Global E-litism. 

1 1 . Steiner, "On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Dog." 

12. Christopherson, "The Positive and Negative Implications of Anonymity 
in Internet Social Interactions." 

13. The "omgblackpeople" blog was originally hosted on Tumblr, but as of 
2013, it is no longer available. The content was reposted on: http://omgblack- For a blog post covering the racist tweets surrounding 
the BET awards, see 

14. Smith, "Twitter Update 2011." 

1 5. Saraceno, "Swiss Soccer Player Banned from Olympics for Racist Tweet." 

16. For an analysis of racism online, see Daniels, Cyber Racism; and Naka- 
mura, "Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game." 

17. For a write-up of racist commentary following the casting of The Hunger 
Games, see D. Stewart, "Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed." 

18. CoEd Staff, "Alexandra Wallace." 

19. Mandell, "Alexandra Wallace, UCLA Student." 

20. At times, self-appointed norm protectors seek to regulate online deco- 
rum by engaging in digital vigilantism. See Phillips and Miltner, "Internet's 
Vigilante Shame Army"; and Norton, "Anonymous 101." 

21 . Eckert, Jocks and Burnouts. 

notes to pages 1 56-1 64 237 

22. The tendency for people to downplay racism by talking about how they 
have friends of different races is so common that it is a frame through which 
people look at cross-race connections. In the 2012 book Some of My Best Friends 
Are Black, Tanner Colby describes the challenges of racial integration in the 
United States through four different case studies. In a more comedic treatment 
of the same issue, comedian Baratunde Thurston dedicates an entire chapter in 
How to Be Black to "how to be the black friend." He offers entertaining advice 
to black readers on how they can make white people feel comfortable by taking 
concrete steps to be a "good" black friend. 

23. For a discussion of homophily, including how American society is 
divided along racial and ethnic lines, see McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook, 
"Birds of a Feather." 

24. See Lin, "Inequality in Social Capital." 

25. Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists. 

26. For a more detailed analysis of the division that emerged in the 2006-2007 
school year between Facebook and MySpace, see boyd, "White Flight in Net- 
worked Publics?" Craig Watkins also documents the racialized tension between 
these sites in his work on youth and social media. Watkins, The Young and the 

27. As Sian Lincoln points out in Youth Culture and Private Space, teenagers 
use whatever platform their friends use, even if they personally prefer other 

28. Black and African American individuals are overrepresented on Twitter 
compared to their participation online more generally. Scholars have begun 
analyzing a practice known colloquially as "Black Twitter," referring both to 
the significant presence of black users as well as how practices and norms in 
Twitter appear to differ across race lines. See Brock, "From the Blackhand 
Side"; and Florini, "Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifying" 

29. Clinton, "Internet Freedom." 

30. Scholars and government agencies have pointed out that technology 
uptake is often dependent on contextual relevance. When it comes to information 
and communication technologies, people are often more likely to appreciate their 
value when they see others use them in beneficial ways. If people's personal net- 
works aren't using particular technologies, they often see no reason to use them. 
See Haddon, "Social Exclusion and Information and Communication Technolo- 
gies"; and Federal Communications Commission, National Broadband Plan. 

31. Hargittai, "Digital Reproduction of Inequality." 

32. For a sampling of relevant studies on social networks, see Fischer, To 
Dwell Among Friends; Granovetter, "Strength of Weak Ties"; Lin, Social Capi- 
tal; and Wellman, Networks in the Global Village. 

33. In Invisible Users, Jenna Burrell makes the issues of structural inequality 
especially visible in her study of Ghanaian youth. Although these youth have 

238 notes to pages 164-173 

access to information technologies, the social networks in which they oper- 
ate — and the norms that exist in their home communities — complicate their 
ability to connect successfully and meaningfully with more powerful users. 

34. Webster, Theories of the Information Society; Webster, "Information and 
Urban Change"; Garnham, Information Society Theory as Ideology. 

Chapter 7. Literacy 

1. Walz and Brownsberger, "(Real) Virtual Education." 

2. Ellen Helsper and Rebecca Eynon have argued, in "Digital Natives," 
that not only is it misguided to assume that there is a digital knowledge gap 
between educators and students but it is entirely possible for adults to "become 
digital natives" through a combination of skill acquisition and interaction 
with ICT. 

3. Barlow, "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." 

4. The origin of the concept of "digital natives" is murky. At the same time 
that John Perry Barlow was penning his manifesto, Doug Rushkoff published 
Playing the Future: What We Can learn from Digital Kids. While promoting 
this book, Rushkoff regularly spoke of youth as digital natives. For example, 
Rushkoff is quoted by Elizabeth Weil in a Fast Company article entitled "The 
Future Is Younger than You Think" as having said, "Kids are natives in a place 
where most adults are immigrants." Rushkoff and Barlow each told me that he 
was inspired by the other. 

5. Prensky, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." 

6. Prensky, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Origins of the Term." 

7. In their report on "Connected Learning," Mimi Ito and coauthors describe 
how different constituencies should come together to enable new forms of 
learning through and with technology. This report provides concrete steps that 
educators can take. 

8. Media literacy is a contentious topic. Scholars, policymakers, and educa- 
tors have long contested its definition, parameters, and pedagogy. Those dis- 
putes and discussions will likely continue as the nature of the internet morphs 
and evolves. For a more in-depth exploration of the debates surrounding media 
literacy and media literacy education, see Aufderheide, Media literacy; Living- 
stone, "Media Literacy"; and Hobbs, "Seven Great Debates." 

9. The history of media literacy education started in the United Kingdom in 
1930s when F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson published what is considered to 
be the first instruction manual for teaching about the mass media in schools, 
Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness. See Buckingham, 
"Media Education in the UK." 

10. In the United States, the media literacy movement started in the 1960s 
and was spearheaded by John Culkin, who advocated for media education in 
school curricula. See Moody, "John Culkin." 

notes to pages 1 73-1 81 239 

1 1 . Age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status are all determining factors in 
whether youth have the opportunity to develop digital literacy skills. For exam- 
ple, children from higher income households are more likely to have access to 
the latest technology, which means that they will have more opportunity to 
figure out how to use it, not only from trial-and-error exploration, but from the 
instruction of their parents and siblings. Furthermore, these children are more 
likely to have been taught to search for information, as well as to qualify and 
evaluate it. See Livingstone, Bober, and Helsper, Internet Literacy Among Chil- 
dren and Young People; and Hargittai, "Digital Reproduction of Inequality." 

12. In his article on "Copy and Paste Literacy," Dan Perkel notes that even 
though teenagers may know how to engage in "networked discourse" from a 
social perspective, they still developed technical sensibilities in order to update 
their MySpace profiles. 

13. For a critical examination of how Google — both the company and the 
search engine — work, see Vaidhyanathan, Googlization of Everything. 

14. In Spam, Finn Bruton details how spammers react to Google's attempt 
to stop search engine optimizers by developing complex algorithms to manipu- 
late the system. This creates an ongoing battle between the company and those 
who seek to profit from having their material at the top of the results pages. 

15. In "The Relevance of Algorithms," Tarleton Gillespie details the ways in 
which algorithms have political power. 

16. In "The Curious Connection Between Apps for Gay Men and Sex 
Offenders," Mike Ananny describes the unintended link produced by the algo- 
rithm underpinning Android's recommendation system. When Ananny tried 
to download Grindr, a gay dating site, he was encouraged to also consider 
downloading a sex offender search site. He wrote this essay to question how 
such a link was algorithmically produced. Unfortunately, Google did not 
respond. Instead, the company simply changed the algorithm. 

17. Gasser, Cortesi, Malik, and Lee, "From Credibility to Information 

18. Giles, "Special Report." 

1 9. Although educators often dismiss Wikipedia over issues of credibility, they 
also tend to downplay the educational value of using the service. In "Writing, 
Citing, and Participatory Media," Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman found that 
engaging with wikis was a learning-rich experience for high school students that 
contributed to both writing and information assessment skills. 

20. Texas's undue influence on the US textbook market is discussed in 
Collins, "How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us." For examples of how 
Texan Christianity shapes textbooks, see Birnbaum, "Historians Speak Out 
Against Proposed Texas Textbook Changes." 

21. See http://en.wikipedia.Org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_hoaxes_on_ 

240 notes to pages 1 82-1 91 

22. The potential of social media and other recent technologies for helping 
address issues in information flow and curation — including crowd-sourcing, 
classification, and cooperation — has been the topic of numerous books in 
recent years. See Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous; Shirky, Cognitive 
Surplus; and Benkler, Penguin and Leviathan. 

23. Jenkins, "Reconsidering Digital Immigrants." 

24. The first official use of the term digital divide appeared in a report by the 
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The 
NTIA defined the digital divide as the gap between those who had access to a 
computer and the internet and those who didn't. See NTIA, Falling Through 
the Net. 

25. Compaine, Digital Divide. 

26. Warschauer, Technology and Social Inclusion. 

27. NTIA, Falling Through the Net. 

28. For an overview of digital inequality and the various scholarly strands, 
see Hargittai, "Digital Reproduction of Inequality"; Mossberger, Tolbert, 
and Stansburgy, Virtual Inequality; and Selwyn, "Reconsidering Political and 
Popular Understandings." 

29. Federal Communications Commission, National Broadband Plan. See 
also Eszter Hargittai's work on skill, e.g., DiMaggio, Hargittai, Celeste, and 
Shafer, "Digital Inequality"; and Hargittai, "Second-Level Digital Divide." 

30. Warschauer, Technology and Social Inclusion. 

31 . Lenhart et al., "Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites." 

32. The politics surrounding access for youth are far from straightforward. 
Christian Sandvig notes, in "Unexpected Outcomes in Digital Divide Policy," 
that when given unstructured access, young people prefer to play games and 
use chat, activities that are not considered to be the types of "beneficial" 
engagement that policymakers had in mind. 

33. Jenkins et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. 

34. The ability to access the internet without restriction is described by Esz- 
ter Hargittai as "autonomy of use." Autonomy of use has a significant impact on 
the depth of engagement and type of benefit that can be gained from internet 
use. Youth who rely on public sources of access, such as schools or libraries, 
often face major obstacles that impede their usage and impact, including phys- 
ical distance, opening hours, and equipment quality and availability. See Har- 
gittai, "Digital Na(t)ives?" 

35. Eszter Hargittai's work on the topic of skills can be found at: http:// Two relevant publications are Hargittai, "Digital Nat- 
ives?"; and Hargittai and Hinnant, "Digital Inequality." 

36. Hargittai, "Digital Na(t)ives?" 

37. Crawford and Robinson, "Beyond Generations and New Media." 

38. Epstein, Nisbet, and Gillespie, "Who's Responsible for the Digital Divide?" 

notes to pages 1 91-1 95 

39. Palfrey and Gasser, Born Digital; Palfrey and Gasser, "Reclaiming an 
Awkward Term." 

40. Gasser and Palfrey's nuanced description of digital natives comes from 
their answer to the question, "Are all youth digital natives?" on their project site: 
http://www.digitalnative.0rg/#ab0ut. They provide a similar explanation in the 
opening of their book Born Digital. 

41 . Prensky, "Digital Wisdom and Homo Sapiens Digital." 

42. Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out by Mimi Ito et al. pro- 
vides a more detailed framework for understanding how young people's online 
activities can lead to tremendous learning opportunities. Many youth approach 
social media and other technologies as spaces to hang out with their friends, but 
some start messing around with different technical and media elements — such 
as those who started learning how to code by exploring ways of creating intri- 
cate MySpace pages. When teens become passionate about something, they 
may turn to social media to geek out, building online communities and drilling 
down in specialized interests. This book provides a framework for thinking 
about the various forms of informal learning that can emerge when youth are 
given the freedom to explore networked settings. 

Chapter 8. Searching for a Public of Their Own 

1 . For an examination of how shopping malls serve as publics, see Matthews, 
Taylor, Percy-Smith, and Limb, "Unacceptable Flaneur." 

2. Two books provide fantastic analyses of the consumer culture that Amer- 
ican children inhabit and how it inflects every aspect of their engagement with 
school, media, and society more generally: Seiter, Sold Separately; and Schor, 
Born to Buy. 

3. For a broader critique of the commercial side of social media and the 
privatization of public spaces online, see Scholz, "Market Ideology and the 
Myths of Web 2.0"; and Lovink, Networks Without a Cause. 

4. My collaborator, Alice Marwick, and I build off of this case study and 
detail the dynamics of Twitter and public culture in "Tweeting Teens Can 
Handle Public Life." 

5. Duncombe, Notes from Underground; Finders,"Queens and Teen Zines"; 
Bayerl, "Mags, Zines, and gURLs." 

6. In The Anarchist in the Library, Siva Vaidhyanathan shows how new tech- 
nologies erase institutional boundaries, which in turn challenge the political 
organization of society. Not only are people using new technologies to engage 
in political acts, but the very architecture of networked publics — and the 
affordances that underpin them — create new socio-technical configurations 
that alter the political landscape. In Communication Power, Manuel Castells 
points out that those who control the networks — both technical and social — 
are often those with the most power. 

242 notes to pages 1 96-206 

7. According to Youth and Participatory Politics Survey Project, 41 percent 
of young people have engaged in at least one act of participatory politics, 
defined by the project as "interactive, peer-based acts through which individu- 
als and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public 
concern." Cohen et al., "New Media and Youth Political Action." 

8. Jodi Dean argues that the environments that I'm describing as networked 
publics cannot serve as political public spheres because of the commercial 
underpinnings of these systems. Although I respect her argument, I do think 
that much political work does take place in and through these systems, even if 
they themselves are not the kinds of ideal publics that enable the public sphere 
to form. Dean, "Why the Net Is Not a Public Sphere." 

9. In Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold describes how activists in the Philippines 
used technology to spread information and come together politically. As protests 
were breaking out in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, people turned to 
social media for information and to coordinate political resistance. See Tufekci 
and Wilson, "Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protests." 

10. In The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Philip Howard 
discusses how democracy is supported by having a high percentage of the pop- 
ulation online, even if they are not directly engaged with political activities. In 
a paper for the Digital Media and Learning initiative, Joseph Kahne, Nam-Jin 
Lee, and Jessica Timpany Feezell demonstrated that engagement with nonpo- 
litical online participatory cultures can act as a gateway for behavior that is 
considered to be more explicitly civic and/or political: volunteering, commu- 
nity problem-solving, protests, and political expression. Kahne, Lee, and Tim- 
pany Feezell, "Civic and Political Significance of Online Participatory Cultures 
among Youth Transitioning to Adulthood." 

11. Khokha, "Text Messages, MySpace Roots of Student Protests." 

12. Cho and Gorman, "Massive Student Walkout Spreads Across Southland." 

13. Leavey, "Los Angeles Students Walk Out in Immigration Reform Protests." 

14. For background information on Anonymous, see Coleman, "Our Weird- 
ness Is Free"; Norton, "Anonymous 101"; and Greenberg, "WikiLeaks Supporters 
Aim Cyberattacks at PayPal." 

15. Olson, We Are Anonymous. 

16. For an in-depth examination of internet memes and the sociopolitical 
use of memes for humor and cultural commentary, see Shifman, Memes in 
Digital Culture. 

17. For an explanation of the Hitler Downfall meme, including other exam- 
ples, see 

18. In his book on the history of the telephone, America Calling, Claude 
Fisher shows how the fears and anxieties discussed throughout this book also 
played out at the time in which the telephone was first being deployed. 

19. Vint Cerf quoted in Ward, "What the Net Did Next." 

notes to pages 206-21 2 243 


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As exciting as it is to produce a monograph, the very notion of a book 
being the product of a single person is laughable. So many people 
helped me create this work, and I am forever grateful for their tre- 
mendous advice, support, and editorial efforts. 

Long ago, in a land far away, this book began as a dissertation. In 
2003, I started collecting data about social network sites, which led 
me to asking questions about youth practices. This project evolved 
over time and I have been blessed to be a part of numerous collab- 
orative efforts that helped guide me along the way. When the MacAr- 
thur Foundation helped initiate what would become the Digital 
Media & Learning community, I was lucky enough to be a part of 
the first massive ethnographic digital youth project. I am indebted to 
the MacArthur Foundation for funding much of this project and am 
especially thankful to John Seely Brown and Connie Yowell for their 
ongoing commitment to my research. It was a blessing to embark on 
this project surrounded by a community of like-minded scholars 
working on similar studies. The twenty-eight-person Digital Youth 
team assembled by Mimi Ito, Peter Lyman, and Michael Carter pro- 
vided the ideal intellectual space for working out the puzzles in my 
dissertation. I am especially grateful for long conversations and 
debates with Becky Herr-Stephenson, Heather Horst, CJ Pascoe, and 
Dan Perkel. 

This project began at the University of California, Berkeley, and 
I'm grateful for all of the wonderful support I received there. In par- 
ticular, my dissertation committee — Mimi Ito, Cori Hayden, Jenna 
Burrell, and Anno Saxenian — helped me realize my ideas into a thesis 


respectable enough to earn a lollipop. I couldn't have made it through 
without them, especially after my beloved adviser — Peter Lyman — 
lost his battle with brain cancer. I am grateful for the entire School of 
Information faculty who supported me along the way, especially Marc 
Davis and Nancy Van House. 

After finishing my PhD, I embarked on a new set of fieldwork with 
the best collaborator imaginable: Alice Marwick. Together, we toured 
the south talking with teens and embedding ourselves in youth cul- 
ture. This collaboration enhanced my thinking more than I can say. 
Two chapters in particular — privacy and bullying — would not have 
been possible without her brilliant insights. Alice helped me rethink 
many of my assumptions and challenged me to push myself theo- 

As I started processing the data, numerous research assistants 
helped me track down literature and keep things organized, includ- 
ing Sam Jackson, Ann Murray, Alex Leavitt, Heather Casteel, and 
Benjamin Gleason. Others patiently helped me organize my thoughts. 
My colleagues at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society 
helped me stay on track by providing a book club structure. In par- 
ticular, I wish to thank Judith Donath, Eszter Hargittai, Colin 
Maclay, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, and Ethan Zuckerman for 
hours of shared misery and joy. 

Doree Shafrir helped me rip out the dissertation language and 
restructure the material into a book. When I got lost and confused in 
my own writing, Quinn Norton stepped in to serve as my literary 
trainer and editorial dominatrix, helping me whip my disorganized 
thoughts into prose that someone might want to read. And Kate 
Miltner helped me ground my arguments and fill in gaps in logic. 

When I turned to friends and colleagues for feedback, I was over- 
whelmed by their willingness to read and critique what I wrote. In 
particular, I wish to acknowledge the amazing feedback offered at dif- 
ferent stages from Mark Ackerman, Ronen Barzel, Geof Bowker, Eliz- 
abeth Churchill, Beth Coleman, Jessie Daniels, Cathy Davidson, 
Judith Donath, Nicole Ellison, Megan Finn, Jen Jack Gieseking, 

268 acknowledgments 

Elizabeth Goodman, Germaine Halegoua, Eszter Hargittai, Bernie 
Hogan, Mimi Ito, Henry Jenkins, Airi Lampinen, Amanda Lenhart, 
Jessa Lingel, Nalini Kotamraju, Eden Litt, Mary Madden, Alice Mar- 
wick, John Palfrey, CJ Pascoe, Jillian Powers, Hannah Rohde, Adri- 
enne Russell, Jason Schultz, Clay Shirky, Christo Sims, TL Taylor, 
David Weinberger, Sarita Yardi, Michele Ybarra, and Ethan Zucker- 
man. Their insights and challenges helped make this book stronger. 

Throughout this journey, my editors at Yale University Press — 
Alison Mackeen and Joe Calamia — provided ongoing guidance to 
help make this a coherent manuscript. The Yale University Press 
team helped me go from scribbled Word documents to a proper 
book. And my agents at ICM (first Kate Lee and then Kristine Dahl) 
and Leigh Bureau (notably, Wes Neff) helped me develop my voice 
and imagine how this book could reach an audience. 

Outside the process of producing the book itself, I have been lucky 
enough to have a series of mentors who have helped me intellectually 
and strategically. In particular, I'm grateful to Andy van Dam, Judith 
Donath, Henry Jenkins, Genevieve Bell, Mimi Ito, Peter Lyman, 
John Palfrey, and Jennifer Chayes for their ongoing advice and sup- 
port. I'm especially thankful for Mimi Ito, who helped guide me 
through this project at every turn, and to my beloved adviser Peter, 
who took a bet on me. Outside of academia, I have been fortunate to 
have many mentors, bosses, and advocates in industry who have 
opened doors and helped me understand the technical side of social 
media. I'm especially grateful to Tom Anderson, Adam Bosworth, 
Lili Cheng, Cory Doctorow, Caterina Fake, Reid Hoffman, Bradley 
Horowitz, Joi Ito, Craig Newmark, Tim O'Reilly, Ray Ozzie, Marc 
Pincus, Ian Rogers, Linda Stone, Jeff Weiner, and Evan Williams. 

After finishing graduate school, I have been fortunate to find an 
intellectual home at Microsoft Research (MSR). At MSR, I have 
been surrounded by phenomenal scholars who have pushed me to 
think deeply. In particular, I want to thank Alice Marwick, Mike 
Ananny, Andres Monroy-Hernandez, Megan Finn, Nancy Baym, 
Kate Crawford, and Mary Gray — as well as a stream of amazing 

acknowledgments 269 

interns and visitors — for their ongoing collaboration and advice. I 
am also grateful for the loose collection of folks who have come in 
and out of MSR to collaborate with me and the rest of the Social 
Media Collective. And I am deeply thankful for the mathematicians 
and computer scientists who welcomed me with open arms. Jennifer 
Chayes, Christian Borgs, and Rick Rashid, in particular, have been 
more supportive than I ever thought imaginable. MSR provided me 
with an intellectual home to do research and showed me how power- 
ful constructing a healthy intellectual community can be for enabling 
innovation and critical thought. 

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to participate in 
numerous professional networks that have enriched me and sup- 
ported me in different ways. Conferences, workshops, book clubs, 
and salons have enabled me to think deeply with diverse scholars. 
And I'm deeply, deeply, deeply grateful to the countless unnamed 
friends, scholars, peers, and colleagues who have supported and chal- 
lenged me over the years. I can't imagine having done this project 
without their love, support, and laughter. 

This project wouldn't have been possible without the hundreds of 
teens who took the time to talk to me and provide feedback. I'm also 
thankful to their parents for letting me talk with them and to the 
teachers, librarians, religious leaders, afterschool project coordina- 
tors, and community members who introduced me to them. Although 
I cannot name all of these wonderful people without undermining 
the anonymity of the teens I met, I am deeply grateful for their will- 
ingness to help me pursue this research. I am also thankful to the 
various technology creators and engineers who helped me gain access 
to data or walked me through practices that they were seeing on their 
services. This perspective, though not always visible in the manu- 
script, helped me better map teens' practices. 

No project of this scale and duration is possible without the sup- 
port of family. I am eternally grateful for my mother, Kathryn, 
who has been willing to stand behind me even as I stayed in school 
long after she imagined necessary; my brother, Ryan, who always 

270 acknowledgments 

managed to roll his eyes at his big sister's insanity in a way that 
brought a smile to my face; and my cousins Trevor and Julie for mak- 
ing sure I was OK even when I was out causing trouble. I am also 
deeply indebted to my grandparents Dick and Rita, who have been 
an inspiration for as long as I can remember. 

Last and most important, I have been lucky enough to have the 
best partner by my side during this process. Midway through my dis- 
sertation fieldwork, I met my soulmate. Gilad has bounced around 
the world with me, keeping me calm and asking me strange ques- 
tions about my peculiar country. He has supported me through thick 
and thin and been there for me in ways that I can't even express. As 
I finish this book, our child is growing inside of me. Together, we are 
both looking forward to watching Ziv embrace a whole host of new- 
fangled technologies in years to come. 



abductions, 113, 114, 118-120 

After the Death of Childhood 
(Buckingham), 223ni4 

agency, 59, 60, 76, 96, 203, 228ni6; 
addiction rhetoric and, 83; coming 
of age without, 93-96; control of 
social situation and, 61; parental 
surveillance and, 74; status power 
and, 142 

age verification, 232— x^nxo 

alcohol abuse, 83, 113 

Alcoholics Anonymous, 81 

America Calling (Fisher), 243M8 

American Revolution, Wikipedia article 
on, 190-191 

Ananny, Mike, 240M6 

Anarchist in the Library, The 
(Vaidhyanathan), 242n6 

Anderson, Benedict, 9 

Android phones, 194, 24oni6 

anonymity, 43, 141 

Anonymous, 43, 209 

apps, 4, 8, 171, 24oni6 

Armstrong, Heather ("Dooce"), 75 

Asians and Asian Americans, 2, 162, 174 

Assange, Julian, 209 

"attention whores," 148 

audience, 9, 41, 59, 145, 204; complexity 
of technology and, 182—183; context 
and, 31-36; imagined, 63; intended 
audience online, 29-30; invisible, 61 

Audience and Publics (Livingstone), 


autonomy, 8, 19, 142, 241^34 
avatars, 42 

Backstreet Boys, 149 

Barlow, John Perry, 37, 177-179, 2^s> n 4 

Basketball Diaries, The (film), 82 

Baudelaire, Charles, 203 

Bazarova, Natalya N., 228ni8 

Bazelon, Emily, 235^ 

"bedroom culture," 47, 226-27^3 

Bell, Genevieve, 179 

Berkman Center (Harvard), 186 

Berlin, Joey, 236n20 

Bernstein, Gaia, 72 

Beyer, Alexis Anne, 119 

Beyonce (Beyonce Knowles), 161 

Bieber, Justin, 149 

Black, Rebecca, 150-151, 236^3 

Blackberries, 3 

Black Entertainment Television (BET) 
Awards, 161 

blacks (African Americans), 2, 29-30, 
57; cell phone brands used by, 3; 
context online and, 34—36; Facebook 
versus MySpace and, 167-171; gang 
culture and, 153-156; privacy online 
and, 229n24; risky online behavior 
and, 124; smartphones used by, 171; 
status updates and, 64; technological 
biases and, 157-158; Twitter and BET 
Awards, 161 

blogging, 6, 7 

Born Digital (Palfrey and Gasser), 

Bourdieu, Pierre, 169 
Bowling Alone (Putnam), 231^29 
Brandeis, Louis, 59 
browser history, 52 


Bruckman, Amy, 2401119 

Buckingham, David, 2231114 

bulletin boards, 4, 6, 7, 42 

bullying, 24, 128-131; celebritization 
of everyday life and, 147— 151; 
consequences of, 135, 235^; culture of 
meanness and cruelty, 151— 152; defined 
in digital era, 131-134; fault for 
bullying, 134-136; indirect, 129; rates 
of, 234n2; seeking of social status and, 
142-147; suicide as result of, 130, 132, 
23jn3; teenage drama and, 129, 130, 
136-142; zero tolerance policies 
toward, 135, 136, 235n8 

Burrell, Jenna, 238^3 

capitalism, 27 
Carmichael, Stokely, 31 
Carr, Nicholas, 92-93 
cars and driving, 21, 107 
Castells, Michael, 242n6 
celebrity culture, 147-151, 236ni7 
Celebrity Rehab (TV show), 82 
cell phones, 2-3, 17-18, 73 
Center for Internet Addiction 

Recovery, 77 
Cerfi Vint, 212 
Cespedes, Danny, 115-116 
chatrooms, 4, 6, 52, 112 
Chavez, Cesar, 207, 208 
childhood, changes in, 86-87 
Chrome browser, 52 
churches, 2, 13 
civil inattention, 58, 228n9 
class, socioeconomic, 86, 160, 168, 

Clinton, Hillary Rodham, 172 
clothes, 17, 54, 115, 134, 199 
Cobain, Kurt, 83 
Cohen, Stanley, 105 
Colbert, Stephen, 146 
Colby, Tanner, 238n22 
Columbine High School shooting, 121 
comic books, moral panic over, 105 
coming of age process, 17, 18, 93-96 
Communication Power (Castells), i^xn6 

communities, online, 6 

"Connected Learning" (Ito et al.), 239^ 

consumerism, 16, 202 

content streaming, 32 

context, 31-36, 39, 46, 53; impression 

management and, 48, 49; privacy and, 

60, 61; sexual identity and, 227^0 
"Copy and Paste Literacy" (Perkel), 

Crawford, Kate, 195 
crime, decline in, 86, 23ini8 
Crimes Against Children Research 

Center (CCRC), 111-113 
crowdsourcing, 191 
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, 80 
Culture and Environment (Leavis and 

Thompson), 239^ 
Culture of Fear, The (Glassner), 232^ 
curfew laws, 87, 104 

"Curious Connection Between Apps for 
Gay Men and Sex Offenders" 
(Ananny), 24oni6 

cyberbullying, 22, 130, 132 

Cyrus, Miley, 149 

Davidson, Cathy, 93 
Dean, Jodi, 243n8 

Death and Life of Great American Cities, 

The (Jacobs), 126 
"Declaration of the Independence of 

Cyberspace" (Barlow), 37, 177-178 
Deleting Online Predators Act, 106 
delinquency, 14, 87, 105, 124, 200 
democracy, 156, 236-237ni 
dependence, 17 

Design of Everyday Things, The 

(Norman), 222n7 
Diana, Princess, 150 
digital divide, 192-195, 24in24 
digital natives, 22, 176, 192; beyond 

idea of, 195-198; emergence of, 


"Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" 

(Prensky), 179 
"Digital Natives" (Helsper and Eynon), 


274 index 

Digital Origins of Dictatorship and 

Democracy, The (Howard), 2431110 
Digitizing Race (Nakamura), 237112 
Dimarco, Alexandra Nicole, 119 
Discipline and Punish (Foucault), 74 
Distinction (Bourdieu), 169 
"Do Artifacts Have Politics?" (Winner), 

157, 223ni5 
Donath, Judith, 226n2i 
"Do Politics Have Artefacts?" 

(Joerges), 157 
drama, 13, 63, 68, 229n2; bullying and, 

129, 130, 136-142; "starting drama," 

64; on television shows, 130 
drive-ins (1950s), 20 
drug abuse, 82, 83, 113, 125-126 
Drugstore Cowboy (film), 82 
Dunbar, Robin, 144 

early adopters, 4, 6, 7, 36, 59 
education, 95, 186-192, 198, 24oni9; 

compulsory schooling and 

homeschooling, 202; social 

interaction as distraction from 

school, 18 
email, 3, 6 

"emo" teens, 134, 168 
Encarta, 188 

Englander, Elizabeth, 141 
Epstein, Dmitry, 195 
ethnicity, 160 
ethnography, 224^3 
EU Kids Online Project, 22in2 (Intro.) 
Everything Bad Is Good for You 
(Johnson), 93 

Facebook, 7, 8, 20, 133, 197, 222n4; adult 
participation in, 25; algorithms of, 
146-147; anxiety about sexual 
predators and, 100; bullying and, 140; 
context in status updates, 34-36; 
declining popularity of, 27; deletion 
and deactivation of accounts, 70-71, 
77-78, 85, 229n2; identity work on, 
38; impression management and, 49; 
interest-driven communities on, 40; 

"light version" of life shared on, 74; 
parental anxieties and, 18, 19; parents 
as friends on, 67, 129; participation in 
public life and, 10; privacy settings, 
22, 50, 61, 62, 225n6; as public space, 
xi, 202; racism online and, 164, 
167— 171; "real names" in profiles, 46; 
relationship status, 45; rumors on, 145; 
social context and, 41; socializing of 
teens with limited freedom and, 
84, 85; social status and, 143-144; 
streaming content on, 32; teachers 
looking at students' profiles on, 
57; Twitter compared with, 204; 
uses for, 4 

fake college IDs, 118 

fantasy gaming, 100 

fashion, 2, 17, 39, 130, 206 

Feezell, Jessica Timpany, 243nio 

Filter Bubble, The (Pariser), 186 

Fisher, Claude, 243M8 

flaneurs, digital, 203 

Flaubert, Gustave, 14 

flirting, 21 

"flow," 80 

"following," 32 

football game stands, 1-4, 5, 98 
Ford, Sam, 236ni6 
Formspring, 140-141 
Forte, Andrea, 24oni9 
forums, online, 6 
Foucault, Michel, 74 
4chan (bulletin board site), 42-43 
Foxx, Jamie, 161 

Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (Milner), 

frenemies, 130 

"Friday" (Auto-Tuned song on 

YouTube), 150-151 
"friending," 32 

friendships, 2, 18; coming of age process 
and, 17; drama and, 138; Facebook 
and, 4, 222n4; interests contrasted 
with, 7, 222n4; meeting in person, 84, 
85; social status and, 143 

Friendster, 7, 226n22 

index 275 

front stoops, teens on, 21 
"Future Is Younger than You Think, 
The" (Weil), 2 39 n 4 

gambling, 81 

gangs, 29-30, 87, 103, 153-154 

Garber, Jenny, 226n23 

Gasser, Urs, 196 

Gavison, Ruth, 59 

gender, 2, 37 

Gillespie, Tarleton, 185 

girls, moral panics and, 105-106, 233n22 

Glassner, Barry, 232^ 

Glee (TV show), 151 

Go Ask Alice, 82, 23oni4 

Goffman, Erving, 47, 48-49, 57 

Going Solo (Klinenberg), 23in29 

Goldberg, Ivan, 81-82 

Google, 22, 56, 170, 180, 194; Google 
Plus, 225ml; politics of algorithms 
and, 183-186, 240ni6 

gossip, 6, 13, 21, 57, 148; bullying and, 
129, 130, 137, 141, 152; celebrity culture 
and, 148; "Facebook vacation" and, 
229n2; Google ranking of gossip sites, 
184; restricted lives of teens and, 91; 
role in human connections, 144; 
social status and, 142, 145; social 
steganography and, 66 

goth subculture, 2 

grade level, friendships and, 2 

grafitti, 66 

Gray, Mary, 224^, 227^0 
Green, Josh, 236ni6 
Grimmelman, James, 228nio 
"grooming," 113 

Habermas, Jiirgen, 222n5 
hacktivism, 209 
hairstyles, 17, 134 
Hall, G. Stanley, 93-95 
Hanging Out, Messing Around, and 
Geeking Out (Ito et al.), 242n42 
harassment, 132 

Hargittai, Eszter, 22, 195, 232^, 

Hendrix, Jimi, 83 

Hitler Downfall meme, 210 

Hodkinson, Paul, 47 

homebound socializing, 21 

homepages, 7 

homophily, 166, 174 

Howard, Philip, 243nio 

How to Be Black (Thurston), 238n22 

Hunger Games, The (film), 162 

identity, 17, 166, 211; fictitious, 37; 

networked publics and, 36—43; profile 

as identity performance, 43-47; 

real names identity production, 41; 

sexual, 51 
imagined community, 8— 10 
impression management, 47—53 
impulse-control disorders, 81 
independence, 17 

Information Age, The (Castells), 173 
Instagram, 8, 27, 78, 146, 204; early 
adopters of, 59; number of followers 
on, 206; streaming content on, 32 
instant messaging, 6, 20, 129 
interests, interactions driven by, 7, 222n4 
internet, 4, 6, 53, 97; accessed through 
school or library computers, 23, 106, 
194-195; concern over addiction to, 
18; early adopters and, 6; freedom 
from "material" identities and, 37; 
hopes and fears attached to, 102-103; 
inequality and, 159-160, 171-172, 175; 
"internet memes," 210; as mirror of 
everyday life, 24, 212; New Yorker 
dog-on-Internet cartoon, 160; 
nostalgia for pre-internet world, 26; 
online sexual predator myth and, 
no— in, 113; parent-teen battles over 
privacy and, 55; rate of access to, 193 
internet addiction, 77-80, 91-93; 
addiction narrative, 80-84; limited 
freedom of teens and, 84—90; teens' 
struggle with restrictions and, 96—99 
Internet Explorer browser, 52 
Internet Safety Technical Task Force, 

276 index 

"in the zone," 80 

Invisible Users (Burrell), 238^3 

iPhones, 3, 194 

Ito, Mimi, 222nn4~5, 23gn7, 2421142 
Ivy League colleges, 23, 29—30 

"jacking in" (going online), 4 
Jacobs, Jane, 126 
Jenkins, Henry, 192, 193, 2361116 
Jersey Shore (TV show) , 19 
Joerges, Bernward, 157 
Johnson, Steven, 93 
Joplin, Janis, 82, 83 
juvenile justice, 94 

Kahne, Joseph, 243nio 
Kardashian, Kim, 17 
Kik, 26 
Kinect, 158 
Klaas, Polly, 110 
Klinenberg, Eric, 23in29 
Kolko, Beth, 158 

laptops, 23, 194 

Last Child in the Woods (Louv), 223M8 
"Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" (Katy 

Perry song), 151 
latchkey kids, 86 

Latinos/Latinas (Hispanics), 2, 66-68, 
154, 168; Facebook versus MySpace 
and, 174; smartphones used by, 171 

Lauritano-Werner, Bly, 57-59 

Law and Order (TV show), 108 

Leavis, F. R., 239^ 

Lee, Nam-Jin, 243nio 

Legend of Zelda (video game), 35 

Lessig, Larry, 106 

Lewinsky, Monica, 61 

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and 
transgender), 52, 75, 116-117 

Life of Brian (Monty Python movie), 67 

Life on the Screen (Turkle), 36-38 

Lincoln, Sian, 47, 238^7 

Linkedln, 174 

literacy, media, 22, 23, 172, 176-177, 
239nn9-io; digital inequality and, 

192—195; emergence of digital native, 
177-180; going beyond notion of 
"digital natives" and, 195-198; politics 
of algorithms and, 183—186; video 
memes and, 210; youth's need for new 
literacies, 180-183 

Livejournal, 8, 58, 222n4 

Livingstone, Sonia, 222n5 

loitering laws, 87 

Louv, Richard, 223M8 

Lovato, Demi, 149 

Madame Bovary (Flaubert), 14 

Males, Michael, 104 

malls, 20, 21, 33, 107-108, 199-200 

Marilyn Manson (band), 121 

Marwick, Alice, 65, 70, 128, 234m 

McRobbie, Angela, 226n23 

memes, 210 

mental health, 235^ 

Metallica (band), 121 

Meyrowitz, Joshua, 31 

microblogging, 6 

microcelebrity, 150 

Milner, Murray, Jr., 142 

misogyny, 24 

Mitchell, Kimberly, 124 

mobile devices and services, 6, 23, 211 

money and income, 45-46 

moral panics, 14-15, 105, 106-107 

Morial, Marc, 104 

Morrison, Jim, 82, 83 

Moses, Robert, 157 

Mouseketeers, 149 

MTV (Music Television), 96 

multiplayer online games, 41 

multitasking, 22 

music and musicians, 14, 44, 80, 121, 
206; alcohol and drug abuse in 
relation to, 83; music lessons, 89; 
music videos, 150, 151 
"Myface; Spacebook" blogpost, 170 
MySpace, 7, 8, 96, 115, 226n22; anxiety 
about sexual predators and, 100-102, 
105, 108-109, 112, 119-120; blamed for 
crime, 120-122; decline of, 27; 

index 277 

MySpace {Continued) 

inserted code in profiles, 182; intended 
audience and, 29-30; internet 
addiction and, 79-80; limited 
mobility of teens and, 90—91; number 
of followers on, 206; political 
activities and, 207, 208; privacy 
settings, 32; profile as identity 
performance, 43-47; as public space, 
21; racism online and, 164, 167— 171 

"My Story: Struggling, Bullying, 
Suicide, Self Harm" (Amanda Todd 
YouTube video), 123 

Nakamura, Lisa, 158, 237n2 

National Center for Missing and 
Exploited Children, 111 

Native Americans, 189 

networked publics, 4, 28, 98, 205, 
211— 213, 222n5; anxiety about sexual 
predators and, 104; context collapses 
and, 31; creation of, 201-203; identity 
work in, 36-43; politicization of, 
206-211, 243n8; privacy in, 59, 60, 69; 
significance of, 8—14; visibility to 
adults, 57 

"news junkies," 92, 108 

Nissenbaum, Helen, 60, 228ml 

Norman, Donald, 222n7 

No Sense of Place (Meyrowitz), 31 

nostalgia, 16, 26, 199, 161-162 

novels, addiction narrative and, 105 

Now You See It (Davidson), 93 

Nussbaum, Emily, 55-56 

Obama, Barack, 156 
obesity, 88 

Olweus, Dan, 131-132, 138, 235^ 
"omgblackpeople" blog, 161, 237^3 
One Direction (boy band), 40 
Ostrenga, Kirsten "Kiki," 114-116, 117 
Out in the Country (Gray), 224113, 227^0 

Palfrey, John, 196 

parents, 2, 33-34, 44, 125; abductions by 

noncustodial parents, 118; anxiety 
about sexual predators and, 100-101, 
109-110, 118-120; bullying and, 134; 
cell phone calls to children, 3; 
cooperative, 21; gossip cycle and, 69; 
online profiles created by, 58; privacy 
settings and, 32; restrictions on 
freedom of teens, 84-90, 96-99; 
teens' privacy and, 47, 54, 70-74; 
values projected onto children, 17-18 

Pariser, Eli, 186 

"participation gap," 193 

pedophiles, 103, 109 

peer groups, 40, 100, 136, 137, 200 

People's History of the United States, A 
(Zinn), 189-190 

Perkel, Dan, 24oni2 

Perry, Katy, 151 

persistence, of online content, 11, 13, 61, 

Phillips, Whitney, 226ni9 
photo sharing, 33 
Pinker, Steven, 92-93 
pirate radio, 205 

Playing the Future (Rushkoff), 178, 239114 
Poole, Chris, 42 
pornography, 103 

Portwood-Stacer, Laura, 229— 23on2 

pranking, 137, 139, 140, 141 

pregnancy, teenage, 103 

Prensky, Marc, 179, 197 

Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, The 
(Goffman), 47-48 

Presley, Elvis, 105 

Prince, Phoebe, 235^ 

privacy, 8, 19, 50-51, 125, 193; celebrity 
culture and, 150; conflicting norms of, 
57—59; control of social situation and, 
59-61; definitions of, 59, 228ml; 
identity performance and, 47; as 
process, 74-76; public-by-default 
framework and, 61-65; publicity in 
interplay with, 57, 204, 227-228n6; 
settings on social media, 32, 22^6; 
surveillance and, 70-74, 229^4; 
teens' attitudes toward, 54-57, 227n4 

278 index 

Progressive Era, 94 

propaganda, 2391110 

pseudonyms, 38, 225ml 

public-by-default framework, 61-65 

public spaces, 18-19, 20, 54, 155, 201; 
civil inattention and, 58; legal 
restrictions on teens' access to, 
103-104, 106; parental restrictions on 
access to, 87; privately owned, 202; 
sharing in, 56 

Pump Up the Volume (film), 206 

punking, 137, 139, 140, 141 

punk subculture, 2 

Putnam, Robert, 231^9 

Raby, Rebecca, 224m. 

race, 2, 37, 86, 160; in cyberspace, 158; 
gang culture and, 154-156 

Race in Cyberspace (Kolko, Nakamura, 
and Rodman), 158 

racism, 24, 238n22; Facebook versus 
MySpace in racial divide, 167-171; in 
a networked age, 160-163; racial 
profiling, 207; segregation in everyday 
life, 163-166 

radio, 31 

rape and rapists: in dating relationships, 
115-116, 234n38; fears about abduction 
and, no, 113, 114, 118-120; statutory 
rape, 113-114, 115, 116. See also sexual 

Reagan, Nancy, 125 

"reality" TV shows, 19, 147, 205 

Reefer Madness (film, 1938), 82 

"Rehab" (Amy Winehouse song), 83 

Rheingold, Howard, 243^ 

Rise of the Network Society, The 
(Castells), 173 

Robinson, Penelope, 195 

Rodman, Gilbert, 158 

Rolling Stone magazine, 114, 115 

rumors, 13, 129, 131-132, 135, 137, 

Runescape, 100 

Rushkoff, Doug, 239n4 

Ryze, 226n22 

Schmidt, Eric, 56 
searchability, II, 12, 13, 33, 203 
search engine optimization, 184 
search engines, 12, 13 
Second Life, 41 
Seinfeld (TV show), 36 
self-expression, 8 
self-harm, digital, 141 
self-presentation, 17, 30, 48, 50 
Senft, Terri, 150, 236n2i 
sexual abuse, reality of, no— in, 

sexuality, 2, 14, 103, 224^; bullying 
and, 134-135; moral panics over, 105; 
queer identity, 52, 227^0; unhealthy 
sexual encounters, 114-118, 234^8 

sexual predators, 22, 24, 100-102, 127, 
23in2; abductions, 118-120; everyday 
life and fear of, 107-110; foundation 
of fears about, 102—107; myth of 
online predators, 110-114 

Shallows, The (Carr), 92 

shaming, public, 146 

siblings, 47, 73, 86, 141 

Sidekick smartphone, 171 

Siri (Apple voice recognition software), 

Skins (TV show), 82 

Skype, 38 

Slabyk, John, 15 

slut shaming, 24, 52 

Smart Mobs (Rheingold), 243^ 

smartphones, 3, 80, 171, 194 

Snapchat, 26, 27, 64 

Snowden, Edward, 210 

Snyder, Howard N., 2331130 

social media, 4, 206, 211-213; addiction 
to, 91; celebrity culture and, 149; 
death of privacy and, 56; definition 
of, 6-8; hopes and fears attached to, 
15; identity performance on, 44; as 
moving landscape, 27; persistence 
and, 11; polarized views of, 24; as 
public spaces, 20; social divisions 
and, 171-175; sociality reclaimed 
through, 95 

index 279 

social network sites, 19—20, 27, 79, 100, 

sock hops, 21 
Socrates, 14, 2231113 
Solove, Daniel, 59 
Some of My Best Friends Are Black 

(Colby), 238n22 
song lyrics, 67, 68 
Spears, Britney, 150 
sports, 88, 89, 164, 200 
spreadability, of content, 11, 12, 174, 203, 


Spreadable Media (Jenkins, Ford, 

Green), x^6ni6 
stalking, no, 132 
"stalking" by friends, 13, 78 
StarCraft, 41 

"Star Wars Kid" video, 146, 151 
status power, 142-147 
status updates, 33, 64, 68, 139, 228n20 
statutory rape, 113-114, 115, 116 
steganography, social (hidden messages), 

65-70, 228n2I 
Stern, Susannah, 233n22 
Sticks and Stones (Bazelon), 235^ 
"stranger danger," 103, 105, 109, 173 
subcultural groups, 2, 42-43 
substance disorders, 81 
subtweeting (subliminal tweeting), 69 
suicide, 121, 123, 130, 132, 235n3 
Sunden, Jenny, 37 

surveillance, living with, 70-74, 86, 134, 
203, 205 

tabloid magazines, 147, 149 

Tarum, Beverly, 166 

teachers, 56, 57, 69 

technological determinism, 15, 173, 
223ni5, 225ni3 

technology, 1, 13, 26, 63, 177; addiction 
narrative and, 83, 96, 98; authority 
challenged using, 209; biases in, 
156-160; blamed for crime and 
unhealthy behaviors, 120—123; 
bullying and, 133, 140, 152; celebrity 
culture and, 148-149; cultural 

distinctions and, 170— 171; economic 
opportunities and, 193; government 
agencies' use of, 197; hopes and fears 
attached to, 14-16, 211, 223M4; 
networked publics and, n; polarizing 
views of, 24; racism online and, 166; 
teens' lives changed by, 4 
telegraph, 156 

telephone, 8, 21, 79, 132, 243M8 
television (TV), 8, 10, 108; intended 

audience and, 31; parents' anxiety over 

addiction to, 79, 23on4; "reality" TV 

shows, 19, 147, 205 
textbooks, 183, 189, 190 
"Text Generation Gap" {New York Times 

article, 2008), 70 
texting (text messaging), 4, 18, 20, 39, 

207; gossip and, 66; as primary use 

for cell phones, 3 
Thompson, Denys, 239^ 
Threadless website, 15 
Thurston, Baratunde, 238n22 
TMI (too much information), 54, 56 
To Catch a Predator (TV show), 102, 

105-106, no, 114 
Todd, Amanda, 123, 132, 133 
"To Deal with Obsession, Some 

Defriend Facebook" {New York Times 

article, 2009), 77 
Toxic Fame (Berlin), 236n20 
Trainspotting (film), 82 
transportation options, lack of, 87—88, 


Triger, Zvi, 72 
Tripp, Linda, 61-65 
trolls, 226ni9 

Tumblr, 8, 27, 133, 146, 222n4; early 
adopters of, 59; interest-driven 
communities on, 39, 40 

Turkle, Sherry, 36-38 

tweets, 33 

Twitter, 4, 7, 20, 78, 146, 197; Black 
Entertainment Television (BET) 
Awards and, 161; "Black Twitter," 
238n28; early adopters of, 59; 
Facebook compared with, 204; 

280 index 

interaction with strangers on, 204; 
interest-driven communities on, 39, 
40; number of followers on, 206; 
participation in public life and, 10; 
privacy settings, 32; as public space, 
21; race and, 171, 238n28; social 
context and, 41; streaming content 
on, 32 

Untergang, Der (film), 210 
Usenet, 7 

Vaidhyanathan, Siva, i^xn6 
Valentine, Gill, 103, 105 
vampire tales, 117, 118 
video games, 35, 55, 80 
Villaraigosa, Antonio, 208 
viral videos, 145 

visibility, potential audience and, 11, 
12, 203 

Walkman music player, 14 
Wallace, Alexandra, 162-163 
"wangstas," 168 
Wayne's World {film), 206 
Web 2.0, 6 

Weil, Elizabeth, 23^4 
Wells, Melissa, 124 
Westin, Alan, 59 
West, Kanye, 17 

whites, 2, 33-34, 63, 68, 77, 128; cell 
phone brands used by, 3 ; Facebook 

versus MySpace and, 167— 171; racism 
in networked age and, 162—163 

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting 

Together in the Cafeteria? (Tarum), 166 

Whyville, 41 

WikiLeaks, 209 

Wikipedia, 180, 183, 186-192, 24oni9 

Willis, Paul, 30 

Winehouse, Amy, 83 

Winner, Langdon, 157, ixyca^ 

Wong, Jimmy, 162 

World of Warcraft, 41, 42, 162 

"Writing, Citing, and Participatory 

Media" (Forte and Bruckman), 


Xanga, 8 

Yankovic, Weird Al, 146 
Young, Kimberly, 77 
youth culture, 28, 39, 82 
Youth Culture and Private Space 

(Lincoln), 238^7 
Youth Radio, 57 

YouTube, 13, 85, 123, 132; celebrity 

culture and, 149; number of followers 
on, 206; racism and, 162 

zines (homemade magazines), 205 
Zinn, Howard, 189 
Zuckerberg, Mark, 50, 56 
Zuckerman, Ethan, 237^